As one might deduce from its title, summer genre flick Lights Out is all about fear of the dark. Theoretically, that's nothing new -- fear of the dark has been a crucial element of most horror stories since the dawn of time. However, a well-written script, a good cast, and an interesting allegorical take on the concept help elevate this particular film. And at a brisk 81 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome, making it a nice alternative to your typical bloated blockbuster.
Based on director David F. Sandberg's 2013 short film of the same name, Lights Out centers on a family reeling from a tragic loss. A young boy named Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is still grieving the death of his father when he is targeted by a malevolent force, which invades the house he shares with his mentally ill mother Sophie (Maria Bello). Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), Martin's semi-estranged older sister, realizes that she was plagued by similar disturbances as a child, and decides to return home to protect Martin and get to the bottom of this supernatural activity. Upon further investigation, she learns chilling details about her mother's past and symbiotic relationship with the terrifying spirit, which can only manifest in total darkness.
While practical effects help make the spectral creature feel creepy, the ghost hunting ultimately takes a backseat to the horror of a family trapped in dysfunction -- something that gets under the skin much more deeply than any battles with a poltergeist. The core characters are interesting, and their relationships are well-constructed; in particular, Teresa Palmer shines in the role of Rebecca, who is a flawed yet compelling female protagonist (a rarity in horror). Both Rebecca's devotion to her little brother and her animosity toward her mother are entirely believable, and her relationship with her less-than-brilliant boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) provides some welcome comic relief. It's also refreshing that the characters don't cling to any drawn-out skepticism regarding the paranormal activity: The plot cuts to the chase and eliminates much of the exasperating buildup that can make these films drag.
This isn't to say that Lights Out doesn't succumb to several frustrating tropes, such as one character's maddeningly idiotic decision to close a door to a room when the ghoul can only appear in the darkness, people walking directly into traps, and repetitive jump-scares (this is a ghost movie, after all). Yet the film's decision to focus on familial and maternal bonds instead of complicated rituals and exorcisms gives it a very different feel from your typical horror flick. Also worth noting: Look out for a hilariously over-the-top chase scene featuring Bret and the ghost towards the end.
The quality filmmaking here should come as no surprise, since the movie was produced by director James Wan of Insidious and The Conjuring fame -- Lights Out further solidifies Wan's reputation as one of the most noteworthy names in modern horror. Just as importantly, this is an impressive feature directorial debut for Sandberg, who uses natural lighting and imaginative camerawork to make the audience feel like they're right alongside the characters as they try to avoid the darkness at all costs. Hopefully Sandberg and Wan will team up again in the future for another entertaining genre adventure.