Written by: Daniel McDonald
Directed by: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello
There is nothing more satisfying for horror fans than sitting in a theater, enjoying not only the film that you’re seeing, but the audience reaction being so overwhelmingly involved and positive that it actually becomes a part of the film’s experience. That type of “horror validation” truly thrilled me while watching Swedish director David F. Sandburg’s debut feature length extension of his popular short film Lights Out.
The advance buzz on this project began shortly after the release of the short in 2013. It involved an unknown “being” that appears to young girls and pursues them in and out of the light and… well you can guess the rest.
The basic, primal fears of a creature invading our reality and causing havoc was simple but highly effective, drawing the interest of major producers including Lawrence Grey who had a connection with horror maestro James Wan.
Together with Sandburg agreeing to direct and co-author (with Eric Heisserer) a fully fleshed out feature film, they began production on what would become a thrifty 5 million dollar Warner Brothers/ New Line Cinema feature set for a winter 2016 release. Due to enormously popular response to advance screenings, the opening date was pushed forward to July 22, opening against powerhouse Star Trek Beyond and another installment of the popular Ice Age franchise. Studio expectations were hopeful for a 12- 15 million opening weekend.
Lights Out is a completely “by the numbers” scare fest that could have gone the way of any number of popcorn time-killers that we see come and go, if they get release at all. This efficient 81 minute gem however, had the great good fortune of Sandburg’s surprisingly fresh use of almost every horror trope, risking a “been there, seen that” reaction from even casual fans of the genre. The expertise of Wan’s touch as Producer, combined with Sandburg’s unapologetic pull all the stops out delivery of a rudimentary story amounts to so very much more than that.
Starting with an absolutely sterling cast that is willing to give formidable dramatic weight to such an ABC script (not that it’s poorly conceived or written, it’s just so damn familiar) really adds to the effectiveness of tried but true set pieces. Teresa Palmer is dynamic and charming in the role of protector/hero Rebecca, big sister of Martin (a wonderful Gabriel Bateman) who it seems is experiencing the same night terrors that haunted her for years.
It seems a vicious creature with a vampiric aversion to any type of light, is appearing and trying to kill whenever and wherever darkness is available. This is first revealed in a creepy prologue where Sandburg “borrows” Hitchcock’s Psycho style treatment of assumed leading man Billy Burke as Martin’s step father Paul. While bearing the oft dreaded PG 13 rating, Sandburg pushes it to its limits using violence in place of the usual limited foul language, a wise decision to ramp up visceral audience reaction to the attack sequences. The script gives each of the main characters a bit of emotional, psychological damage in service of the expositional information needed to keep the audience connected to and rooting for the protagonists.
A multilayered, vulnerable Maria Bello is effective in the role of Sophie, mother of Rebecca and Martin. In a lesser actress’s hands this role could potentially derail the entire film’s effectiveness, as Sophie’s connection to the entity, Diana (a perfectly utilized, very scary Alicia Vela- Bailey) is a challenging but crucial piece of this nightmarish puzzle.
The challenges of finding inventive ways to use darkness and light are cleverly explored, and the numerous jump scares are effectively spaced out, although, even at only 81 minutes my patience was tested (how many times can someone walk apprehensively toward a half opened door to a darkened room? I stopped counting at 17.) Top quality cinematography by Marc Spicer, tension building editing by Michel Aller and a horror enhancing score by Laru Grey combine to make every moment of this film a winner!
All in all an ever increasing sense of dread, punctuated by some massive boo! scares make this an interactive experience ( at the screening I attended, there were numerous full blooded screams, loud advice on what the characters should be doing and enthusiastic applause when Rebecca’s totally charismatic boyfriend Bret ( an unusually charming but realistic turn by newcomer Alexander DiPersia) pulls off some spectacular ways of temporarily defeating the all too powerful blood thirsty Diana.
As a debut Directing/ co-author, Mr. Sandburg has much to be proud of, which some terrifically positive press and a strong 21- plus million dollar opening weekend are significantly saying. I am now looking forward to Annabelle 2 and much more of his work… I’m just saying…