It’s there, just on the outskirts of normal life. It haunts its victims, always rearing up at the most inopportune times. There’s a threat of violence, especially when action isn’t taken. I could be talking about Diana, the supernatural being in Lights Out, but the correct answer to this riddle is mental illness. Yes, David F. Sandberg’s film – with screenplay written by Eric Heisserer – is about the dangers of unchecked mental illness, especially depression, that takes the lives of so many every year. Lights Out‘s allegory isn’t too hidden, either, a fairly clear indictment of poor mental treatment and an inability to get help when needed that happens to use a demonic entity as its symbol. Those looking for this metaphor will likely find the film a bit muddled; viewers who just want to have a good time, however, are the ones who will get the most out of Lights Out‘s shtick.
The film follows Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a young woman who moved out of her mother Sophie’s (Maria Bello) house at a fairly young age after her depression and erratic behaviors became too much to bear. Unfortunately, her half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) lives with her alone after his father dies in a horrible accident at his creepy mannequin warehouse. And living with Sophie means having to brave the darkness, where a horrifying monster named Diana lurks – she’s only able to move through the dark because of a weird light therapy that killed her in a mental asylum, so the only way to stay alive is to keep the lights on.
Sandberg’s film is a gimmick, and most paranormal films of this nature rely on something like it to break through the monotony of ye old ghost story. Here, he makes the most of that gimmick by utilizing lighting in pretty much every scene. Sophie’s house is a veritable dungeon, with black-out drapes and dimly-lit rooms covering the entire scope of the layout. The idea is simple, and so is the execution; wherever there’s darkness, Diana can get in, and wherever there’s light, she’s instantly vaporized. It’s interesting how detailed Lights Out gets with this – later in the film, when characters are attempting to vanquish Diana with a pistol, the gunshot flashes cause Diana to fade in and out of view. It’s a nice touch, one that brings to life this malevolent spirit.
What doesn’t work as well in Diana’s favor is poor backstory, delivered through the usual pieces of exposition about her time in a mental asylum with Rebecca and Martin’s mother. Heisserer’s script paints a very vague picture of Diana, who was a human until some experimental light treatment caused her to spontaneously combust due to a weird light disease. It’s all treated with kid gloves, without much scientific thought or explanation; perhaps Sandberg believes that less is more with Diana’s past, and that’s solid thinking, but it leaves the viewer wondering why Lights Out even opts to go into her backstory in the first place.
It’s really only there to draw parallels between Diana and Sophie, to link them together so that there can’t be one without the other. Lights Out starts out with minimal reference to Sophie’s mental illness, but as the film progresses it begins to nearly shout its themes at the viewer. In the conclusion, Sophie’s dialogue boils down to exactly that: there is no Diana without Sophie, the two inexplicably linked not because of the film’s halfhearted attempts to show that Diana has telekinetic powers but because this is a film about progressing mental illness and its effects on people around the afflicted. While Lights Out is somewhat prosaic about its approach, it still lends some depth to what could have been another movie about people running from a formless evil.
Still, for a film about character, Lights Out does a poor job of developing most of them. Rebecca is a generically “dark” person, from her dress to her Avenged Sevenfold poster on the wall of her apartment. She has spooky, “irresponsible” artwork on the walls, too, something that Martin’s CPS counselor Emma (Andi Osho) takes into consideration when discussing how ill-prepared Rebecca might be to adopt Martin. Even Sophie’s depression is brushed over despite being one of the most important aspects of the plot. These elements feel rushed and Lights Out requires a bit more to really make a compelling case.
Sandberg’s scares, though, are often impressive, getting a lot of mileage out of the same setup. Light switches aren’t the only things that hinder Diana; she’s also vulnerable to candlelight, flashlights, and fires. Black lights also make an appearance, not a weapon but a tool for the hunted to see her movements. Lights Out has some impressive visuals and jump scares that feel familiar but still manage to spook the viewer, and that’s one of the main draws the film can offer.
Lights Out has its fair share of flaws, but for the most part Sandberg manages to craft a compellingly unique thriller about mental illness that lurks in the inky abyss. With some inventive scares and and a creepy monster, the film has enough entertainment value to overcome its lack of character development and some messy statements about its theme. Mainstream horror doesn’t often get it right, so it’s nice to see Lights Out stepping out of the dark.