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Jumping at shadows - 'Lights Out'

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Smart horror film offers story and scares in equal measure

Perhaps no film genre is quite as hit or miss as horror movies. The nature of horror is such that it allows for a wide range of levels of execution. That is, you can drop a big budget on a horror movie, but you can also make one for a relative pittance. However, the resulting quality is wildly variant; in short, there are a lot of mediocre and flat-out bad horror flicks made every year.

Frankly, some of the best of the bunch are those that start out as short films before garnering attention and attracting the necessary investments of money and talent for expansion into full-length offerings. The latest to follow that path is 'Lights Out,' directed by David Sandberg and based on his short film of the same name. It is a taut, smart film that is briskly paced, well-acted and generally frightening; jump scares and atmospheric frights share the screen in a way that you don't often see in new horror fare.

Martin (Gabriel Bateman, 'Band of Robbers') is a little boy living with a parent who suffers from depression. His mother Sophie (Maria Bello, 'The 5th Wave') has been dealing with her illness for years with varying degrees of success. His dad Paul (Billy Burke, 'Divine Access') is slowly but surely making real progress toward helping Sophie recover right up until he is brutally killed by a mysterious entity that only exists in the darkness.

With Paul gone, Sophie spirals downward, spending most of her nights sitting in the shadows talking to an imagined friend from her youth named Diana. Martin is concerned as it is, but things take a terrifying turn when he discovers that Diana is far more than just a symptom of his mother's illness.

He seeks out his half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, 'The Choice') for help. Despite being long estranged from her mother, Rebecca agrees to try and help Martin. Along with her erstwhile boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia, TV's 'Good Girls Revolt'), Rebecca tries to help Martin deal with her mother's madness. However, she discovers that perhaps the nightmares she herself had as a child were more than just dreams that Diana is real and malevolent and out to destroy anyone who might come between her and Sophie.

And the only way to stay safe is to keep the lights on.

While 'Lights Out' certainly has an active and effective monster in the shadowy, skittering, long-nailed Diana, the real monster in this film is depression itself. And for the most part, the manner in which that metaphor is maintained borders on brilliance (though one could argue that the film's end no spoilers sacrifices that metaphor in a rather tone-deaf fashion). Regardless, there's a real thoughtfulness displayed by the filmmakers here certainly more than most contemporary horror fare and a complexity of storytelling that is rendered all the more impressive by a runtime that barely reaches 80 minutes.

The conceit of a monster that can only strike in darkness lends itself to some significant scares and some fantastic visual moments. In a film genre when light and dark are major aesthetic players, the notion of making every shadow a potential danger is strikingly effective.

Bringing a narrative like this to life asks a lot of a cast. Quality of performance has long been a woefully underrated aspect of good horror films; this one has it. Palmer does good work as the film's foundational character reluctant heroes tend to be a nice fit in stories like this one. Bateman is definitely at the upper end of the 'kid in horror movie' acting spectrum; he never succumbs to the shrill hamminess that you often see from young people in these sorts of movies. Bello is a pro who manages to take a relatively difficult part and make it work; in a lot of ways, her performance is the glue that holds the film together. DiPersia doesn't bring much, but that's the part as written he's just a guy. A good guy, but just a guy. He's fine, but literally anyone who fit the costume could have played the role.

'Lights Out' manages to provide story and scares in roughly equal measure; it's the ideal ratio for creating quality horror and one that rarely gets struck. It will likely prove divisive in some respects due mostly to its ending but all in all, a strong offering that warrants the attention of any genre fan.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:42

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