A woman is haunted by a creature that only appears when the lights go out.
July 22, 2016
Lights Out (in case you’re one of the three or so people who have not seen the viral short film from a few years back – check out the link below) is a forthcoming horror feature film which takes its 3-minute source material (which did not win the online film competition it was meant for), and gives us more of the same. Now, that may sound demeaning, but if you enjoyed the simple but effective chills of the short, you’re going to love the feature. And me? I’m ready to blab all about the love-in I just had with this expanded and equally (more?) terrifying and absolutely fun experience.
Also, I had the chance to sit down with four of the film’s actors and the film’s director – so you’ll find some tidbits of those conversations throughout the review.
Sophie (Golden Globe-nominated actress Maria Bello – of Big Driver and A History of Violence) is your average, run-of-the-mill, pill-popping, manic depressive mother. Her two children – the grown Rebecca (Warm Bodies’ Teresa Palmer) and young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman of Annabelle) are currently dealing with their mother’s illness. And since Rebecca long ago deserted her mother to escape the anguish and plentiful difficulties, little Martin is smack-dab/trapped in the middle of Sophie’s neuroses, heightened following the recent death of her husband Paul (the Twilight saga’s Billy Burke). One of Sophie’s biggie pieces of mental baggage is her former psychiatric ward friend, Diana. Diana is an entity which can only be seen in the dark, and who has her eyes on the prize – complete loyalty from Sophie, and absolute domination of Sophie’s time and love – at any cost and with no concern for Sophie’s actual family.
Lights Out is a pure popcorn thrill ride (bring plenty of napkins, as you may be spilling said popcorn and any possible soft drinks in your lap). I expected nothing more going in, and it delivered exactly what you would expect. With prolific horror producer James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring 2) backing things up, you’re in good hands all around. And at the helm of both films, is Swedish director, David Sandberg. He started his career in light-hearted and comedic animated films, but longed to move into horror. With his wife Lotta Losten (the star of the original short film – reprising a similar role in the feature), they produced the short Lights Out a few years back and it went viral, capturing the imaginations of the on-line community and apparently many Hollywood big-wigs.
David: “Everyone started getting in touch – managers, agents, producers and studios. I made this sort of spreadsheet just to keep track of everyone I had talked to. One of the first producers I got in touch with was Lawrence Grey, who wanted to make a movie out of this. We didn’t have any thought of what a movie would be — it was just a stand-alone short. But, as long as we stayed true to the concept of it, we could do anything. I was interested in doing this sort of family drama – to keep it contained – so we could do it for a small budget. I figured people wouldn’t entrust me with a giant budget because I’d never done anything before – I was surprised enough that they would let me do a $5 million film. It started with a treatment that I wrote, and Lawrence got me in touch with Eric Heisserer; screenwriter – who loved the treatment and started working on a full screenplay. And Lawrence also knew James Wan – they had been wanting to do something together – so we sent the treatment to him, and he came on board. He [Wan] had seen the short and he thought that was cool – ‘but can this guy tell a longer story?’”
On that note, the script and story are nothing particularly earth-shattering or unique, but there was enough family history and turmoil present to really make me care about these people. These are not the most insurmountable stakes laid before Rebecca, but she does have to face things, and throughout the film, she does end up going on a journey. And as relatively small as that journey may be, I found it touching as she and Martin began to bond over their crazy mother and dreadful encounters with Diana. And by the time the climax rolled around and the inevitable transpires (it’s hinted at all throughout), I shed some actual tears. I’ve said it before – I rate things and react to films based on the emotional toll they take on me. And despite the fact that this film is a PG-13 exercise (clearly meant for a younger audience) with what seems to be the sole intent to push your fear buttons – it touched on deeper themes… of family loyalty and the devastation of mental illness. And that’s something else I can appreciate about the film.
As Rebecca, Teresa Palmer gives us plenty of depth and pain. Rebecca harbors a lot of resentment toward her mother (can you blame her?) and that wall she’s built to keep her mother out (she’s kind of a goth/hard rock badass) is expertly guarded. The thing is, we can see the pain and vulnerability, always just below the surface. Palmer’s soulful eyes let us in on that vulnerability – despite the façade of Rebecca’s severe wardrobe and radical home décor. Palmer’s final moments in the film – at the emotional climax – are quite impressive and tearfully heart-breaking.
Gabriel Bateman as young Martin – also wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s an adorable kid, and when things become emotional, he gives Martin this quirky little smirk – even as his eyes tear up in the more heightened sequences. It’s endearing and unique and makes us love Martin. There’s a moment between Martin and his mother – somewhere mid-film, where they decide to have a relaxing popcorn and movie night – to get their minds off of all the craziness in their household. When Sophie off-handedly says something along the lines of “It’ll be just the three of us”, watch for the look on Martin’s face. It’s that little uncomfortable smirk, followed by a, “Can it be just the two of us?” Sophie replies with an uncertain, “We’ll see.” Bateman is a natural and despite the inherent strength in Martin’s character, Bateman is still able to make us fear for Martin’s safety.
As the almost cuckoo mother Sophie, Maria Bello delivers all of her lines as if she’s in a haze. Not a bad thing, as Sophie’s grasp on reality is forever diminishing. The strongest part of Bello’s performance comes when she talks to her children about Diana – as if it’s completely normal. That’s what’s truly frightening about her condition. There’s a deliciously terrifying scene where Sophie attempts to introduce Martin to Diana directly. Bello scares us with her wide-eyed belief that all is well, but more than that, she allows us to sympathize with and pity Sophie. Her genuine surprise at the way Diana reacts to the intended meeting is a perfect acting moment. A great performance all around.
If you are a lover of effective “boo” moments, look no further than Lights Out… for real. Director Sandberg keeps up the tension all throughout (never an easy feat) and throws the jump scares at you – fast and furious. There are so many of them, and they are so frequent, you rarely get a moment to breathe. But even with all of these “gotcha’s”, it’s all in good fun.
I asked three of the lead actors – Maria Bello, Alexander DiPersia (playing Rebecca’s boyfriend, Bret) and Gabriel Bateman if they found the feature version to be as scary as the short film. Before answering, Alexander offered this, “I watched it [the short] just before I came to set.” Their “scary” responses:
Alexander DiPersia: “It’s much scarier.”
Maria Bello: “Scarier.”
Gabriel Bateman: “I haven’t seen it [the feature].”
AD: (to Gabriel) “You haven’t seen it? (to HFN) He’s not going to sleep tonight. (to Gabriel) You’re not going to sleep tonight.”
MB: (to Gabriel) You’re going to close your eyes the whole time. (to HFN) But the first scene – none of us are in. So it was a whole different movie that none of us knew about or saw. We read it, but what you see on screen is so scary – it’s crazy. I had my eyes covered for the first ten minutes.
I won’t jump the gun (who am I kidding – this is going to happen), but this will no doubt become another successful horror franchise. And frankly, I really liked this villain. Diana was terrifying, with an intriguing history and again, she’s scary as hell. And she’s practically invincible – that one (not as easy to exploit as you think) major weakness aside. I was expecting another Samara from The Ring or The Grudge’s Kayako. And while Diana’s visual appearance certainly pays homage to those Asian horror heavyweights, Diana was a bit more straight-forward in her approach to terrorizing this particular family.
Visually, the effects are pretty awesome. I’d be curious to see the behind-the-scenes process at making Diana spookily appear and reappear – at the click of a light switch – so seamlessly. And I’ll throw out two key words – to tease you on one of most suspenseful (and visually exciting) scenes in the film, “Tattoo parlor”.
The original short film – shot in David and Lotta’s home – was never intended to be a feature. And the original inspiration – which has now led to a new life and career in Hollywood, an upcoming gig directing Annabelle 2 and the chance to continue scaring the be-Jesus out of a much wider audience:
David Sandberg: “When you turn the lights off at home, you think you see something in the shadows and you have to turn the lights back on.”
Lotta Losten: “A coatrack at the end of the hallway — we had just bought it.”
And so readers – find your inspiration in everyday things, make something out of it, and you too could find yourself quickly climbing the ladder with horror royalty to possibly become a horror heavyweight yourself. Sincere congrats to David and Lotta on a well-deserved ascension. Said Lotta about this story, “It’s our baby.”
Finally, when I questioned the actors about what I should expect from the film; asking them to “Gimme a teaser”, Maria Bello replied, “Well the good news is there’s already a teaser and 300 million people have seen it.”
She’s right. Again, expect more of the same – and from my experience with both the short and the forthcoming feature – that’s not at all a bad thing.
Lights Out had it’s World Premiere at this year’s LA Film Festival, and is scheduled for wide theatrical release on July 22nd. It’s great on the big screen, but it’s such an intimate film – it’ll be just as effective on your small screen. Regardless of the way you see it… just see it.