Review: One brilliant trick can't save 'Lights Out' from going flump in the night

Expanded from a two-minute short to a full feature, the tight genius of the original spirals out of control

Lights Out

[Warner Bros]

Superhero movies cost money. Comedies need perfect timing. And horror rewards restraint. Never has that been more evident than in the promotion of Lights Out from a tightly paced, perfectly executed YouTube short to an 80-minute feature. Delivering on the scares with a monster that won’t go bump in the light, it’s the hammy plot that’s piled lazily on top the economically (shriekonomically?) brilliant exploitation of the most intimate human fear, the dark, that does the damage. But damn if twilight thrills doesn't bring with them some real jolts in your seat.

The two-and-a-half-minute short film of the same name was created by Swedish filmmaker David F Sandberg and featured a woman (his wife, who cameos in the big screen spin off’s thrilling opening sequence) dealing with a spectral silhouette that only appears when she turned off the light switch. It’s perfect, doling out each confusing glimpse in measured tempo, the click of the light switch like a macabre metronome, building to a jump-out-of-your-seat scare. The 2013 video, a viral hit you’ve likely seen shared on social media at some point, ultimately made its way to James Wan, the Malaysian-Chinese-Australian powerhouse behind a recent slew of horror hits (Insidious, The Conjuring, and their sequels), who cobbled together a $5m budget to stretch it out.

Like so many horror films before it, this time around a blonde Australian actress whose name you won’t quite remember finds herself at the mercy of a dark and feminine phantom – Ring any bells? Teresa Palmer is Rebecca, a young woman who’s long since abandoned her relationship with her manically depressed mother Sophie (Maria Bello), a recent widow leafing through The Babadook for parental advice and whose mental state is best presented by her failure to run a brush through her hair.

Choosing instead to cultivate a life of quasi-gothic domesticity (for that read: has some posters of skulls and heavy-metal bands on her wall) with her ‘poor man’s Daario from Game of Thrones’ boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), Rebecca gets a call from her stepbrother’s school. Martin’s been dozing off in class, because Diana kept him awake, he reveals, introducing the audience to the photosensitive spectre who doesn’t want to share the limelight with anyone.

As plots go, personifying mental illness as a literal monster is a well-worn trope by now, but all credit to Sandberg, it’s only in these sequences that the film shows any lightbulb moments. Diana is terrifying, fading in and out of the shadows in wonderfully eerie practical effects, the standout sequence involving a flashing neon sign that would put The Police’s Roxanne to shame.

Finding emo on set with Gabriel Bateman and Teresa Palmer [Warner Bros]

As the handful of characters get to grips with their haunting, it all begins to unravel. There’s a mental hospital, the easiest investigation in the history of sealed medical documents ever, and no real understanding of why, even when they know where she’s lurking, all of the characters are drawn to the darkest corners of the house like moth to a flame.

Every light source imaginable is exploited to fend off the dark – though it’s hard to imagine Bret doesn’t have one of those self-illuminating smartphone cases specifically for selfies – but none of the shadows can manage to successfully obscure the threadbare story. By the time it all comes to a hasty finish, one that really fails to honour the premise of the set-up in a valuable way, it’s clear this economy of scares has been vastly overheated.

Rating: Lights Out (15A, released nationwide on Friday, August 19th) ★★☆☆☆ At times brilliantly creepy, building a story from nothing out of a one-trick show doesn’t quite light up the screen.