LIGHTS OUT (2016, David F. Sandberg)
80% dumb, 90% effective. Go watch Sandberg’s three shorts online (including the genesis of this feature) and you’ll see a terrifically talented filmmaker with a gift for simple premises and satisfying execution. When producer James Wan plumped this out to a feature, he hired writer Eric Heisserer, and I think that’s where the project started to crumble.
Saddled with mostly clunky exposition and eye-rolling dialogue, not to mention a cast that’s either not all on the same page (Bello and Palmer, perfectly cast as mom and daughter but giving uneven performances) or simply incompetent (Alex DiPersia, I’m looking at you, buddy), Sandberg decides not to care too much about anything other than his setpieces, and man do they work.
Cackle all you want at people going down into dark basements when they shouldn’t, or characters refusing to heed warnings for an entire feature, or a criminally negligent social work system — Sandberg delivers the jolts here with glorious aplomb. Knowing that it’s often unclear what’s scarier: seeing the evil or not seeing the evil, he plays with light and dark to make the audience consistently uneasy, utilizing the horror genre’s greatest strength: offscreen space. There’s something exhilarating about being in a packed theater on opening night with a mob of terrified moviegoers, shouting in nervous fear at every well choreographed jump scare. As stupid as the plot may be, and as undercooked as much of the details are, this is one of the scariest films I’ve experienced in some time. And that makes up for a lot of deficiencies. But certainly not enough.