“Lights Out” has a simple premise: There’s something in the dark that will scare, maim and kill you. It takes advantage of that primal fear of the dark and what’s hiding in it to craft an effectively scary film, even if it’s lacking in grace.
Based on first-time director David F. Sandberg’s short of the same name—you probably saw it randomly one night at 3 a.m.—“Lights Out” follows Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) as they grapple with Diana, the pivotal figure in the dark, a mysterious figure from their mother’s past. The plot is basic, and its cast of characters—the family and Rebecca’s boyfriend—is small enough that it’s not completely unreasonable that everyone is so willing to accept what’s happening.
However, it is still a major issue that all of the exposition is hastily run through. It almost seems like dialogue is missing. The film only runs 84 minutes, so it never overstays its welcome like some modern horror films, but it also feels substantially shorter than it should be. Characters discover things that move the plot forward too conveniently. They never really earn the information they have, it’s just there. Plus, it’s weird to have a horror film where the characters are actually good and well conceived when the dialogue is so bad.
“Lights Out” also suffers from its trailers spoiling most of its early scares. The film entirely relies on jump scares, the cheapest tactic in horror. Having seen many of them in the trailer, the movie never reaches its full potential. Although the film’s climax plays around with typical jump scares to try new things, it doesn’t make up for the fact that they’re still just jump scares. Likewise, the film’s schtick sometimes makes it easy to see the scares from a mile away. It fails to build a lasting sense of dread, managing only to create pockets of horror.
The positive to come out of this is Sandberg as an up-and-coming horror director. With a topic that would allow for more range and diverse scare tactics, Sandberg could make something great. As it is, “Lights Out” never does its promising monster justice by over simplifying the premise.