Flourishing in isolation and darkness; briefly dispelled by the light; waiting in the shadows while taking a silent but visible toll. It’s easy to see the malevolent antagonist of David F. Sandberg’s new horror thriller Light’s Out as a potent metaphor for all kinds of human frailty; mental illness, depression, familial estrangement, even a manifestation of helpless bitterness. The strength and weakness of Sandberg’s first feature film is that it takes these ripe allusions and gives them a wicked, visceral literalness; you will be too busy cringing and squirming in your seat, fearing the next plunge into the dark, you won’t even consider the tale’s thematic minefield until after leaving the theater. It may have a few flaws, but one thing is for certain; this is a scary movie.
Expanding his brief, gut-punching 2013 short of the same title, Sandberg spins a story of a struggling family fighting an all-too-real monster that can stalk you in the shadows but is instantly banished when the light switch is flipped. In an unnerving intro, Billy Burke’s Paul encounters a twisted, slouching thing in the murky void of his factory’s darkened warehouse, just beyond the motion-sensor pools of light that keep him at a safe distance. In a stroke of nail-biting brilliance, Sandberg has the creature advance every time the light goes off and back on, placing its gnarled silhouette one pool closer to Paul every time it reappears. The scene takes no prisoners and instantly acquaints us with an enemy both frighteningly real and dreamily disorienting. Light’s Out turns then, and introduces us to Paul’s family back home, haunted in their own way.
Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies, Knight of Cups) plays Rebecca, the estranged daughter of Paul’s wife Sophie (Maria Bello), who returns to her childhood home after years of self-imposed exile because her younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), has started experiencing the same strange behavior from mom that drove her away. Bello’s Sophie is an anxious, disconnected mass of neuroses that only seems superficially aware of the fact she’s got a young son in the house; to make matters worse, the way Sophie deals with her grief and loneliness is to retreat into her room and converse with the shadows, who to Martin’s dismay, often chitter back to her in conspiratorial tones. Becca has her own issues—mainly relationship anxieties culled from a childhood of living in distrust and fear of her mother—and when she and frustrated boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) intervene on Martin’s behalf, old wounds are reopened and a dark presence from the past starts to exert itself on Sophie.
At a scant 79 minutes, Sandberg’s film doesn’t have time to mess around, and mess it does not. The characters are surprisingly nuanced and believable, the supernatural force is provided with a compelling and effective back-story, and the scares are given the room to breathe even if the audience watching isn’t. In one of the film’s spookiest scenes, Palmer watches horrified as a wispy, jagged shadow hunches on the floor of her bedroom and scratches into the wood, occasionally dispelled from its task by the flickering red lights of the sign outside her apartment window. In the morning, she finds a name, ‘Diana,’ scrawled beneath the carpet. As the movie progresses, Sandberg vacillates between creative uses of the lights-on, lights-off concept—eventually Becca, Bret and Martin must arm themselves with various and surprising illuminating devices—and tired genre dabbling as he attempts to fully sketch the relationship between mother and monster in tragic terms. The tension generated is deliciously effective, and the script by Eric Heisserer often surprises in its willingness to play some of the stereotypes in a more realistic and logical manner. Specifically, DiPersia’s Bret goes from throwaway stock character to resourceful audience favorite in a few short scenes.
At the same time, Light’s Out brevity and simplicity do often muddy some of the more poignant material that rises up in between the spooky stuff. From a structural perspective, Sandberg’s movie bears a striking resemblance to the work of producer Val Lewton, whose stable of short and atmospheric black-and-white thrillers (Cat People, The Body Snatcher) often pushed boiling suspense and psychological dread to the forefront, even when an ending felt like we had been dropped mid-story. For Lewton, this abruptness often played to his favor because of a certain literary richness that existed after-the-fact; the troubled souls of characters like Irena Dubrovna and John Gray live above and outside the plot in a way that lingers in the mind. Visually, Sandberg likes to play many of the same cat-and-mouse games with the audience that Lewton fancied, here taking that childhood exercise of banishing monsters by closing your eyes, and turning it on the head. His actors are also up to the challenge, with Palmer and Bello creating convincing and complicated people whose own broken relationship takes center stage every bit as much as the creature.
The weakness here is that, as a first time director, Sandberg sidelines most of the stewing drama for a carnival-style horror atmosphere that more directly references the film’s producer, James Wan. This would be perfectly fine, if not for the waters that Light’s Out wades into regarding Sophie and her history of clinical depression. One of the things that makes Sandberg’s movie work is that it takes fairy-tale fear out of a fairy-tale setting and makes it real, but what are audiences to makes of Sophie’s behavior, which sometimes taps into the all-too-real fallout that people with depression face and mixes it with a Hollywood version of schizophrenia that includes hearing voices, talking to invisible people and menacing family members? It’s not so much that this doesn’t reflect reality, but the lines here become blurred and create a portrait that may be more harmful than helpful in how we perceive those who suffer as Sophie does. To Sandberg’s credit, most of Sophie’s most fearsome tics are directly traceable to the influence of the film’s supernatural forces. Still, the movie arrives at a somewhat inevitable conclusion that gives one character agency and triumph at the same time it sends a pretty frightening message to those struggling with real mental health issues.
Two years ago, The Babadook entered similarly dicey metaphorical waters and delivered both first-rate suspense and scares while finding a compelling and thoughtful conclusion for its monster that also enhanced the metaphors. Light’s Out isn’t quite as accomplished, but it is still very effective as a roller-coaster horror ride, which is really all it wants to be. Sandberg, displaying some first-rate directing chops, goes further and gives you a little more than you were expecting. If you want an iron-clad recommendation for Light’s Out, it’s probably this. It has made me legitimately curious about Sandberg’s next directing gig, Annabelle 2.