Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Lights Out review

Who doesn't love a good 'ol fashioned spookfest at this time of year? Hit the jump for my review of James Wan's (as a producer) much touted high-concept chiller, Lights Out!

Somewhat annoyingly, Wan has attached his name all over the final product of this film; actually directed by David F. Sandberg - although you won't find his name anywhere on promotional materials.... You may remember Sandberg's initial viral short. If not, check it out below:

Scary, right? Pretty cool premise as well. Luckily, that's exactly the premise that he's is going for with this feature adaptation - of course making a few additions as he goes. Namely, an interesting backstory that boils down to The Babadook-lite. Unfortunately for him, I suppose, it's only been two years since that particular film was in cinemas, and the  memory of it hasn't faded enough for this kind of rip-off. That doesn't mean that Lights Out is a bad movie, or that it is undeserving of your time; but it does mean that it asks to be compared to a modern classic. And unless Lights Out turns out to be a modern classic, it's gonna be lights out for Sandberg.

Holy shitballs that's creepy....
The story concerns stereotypical rebel girl Rebecca, who is going out with a stereotypical boyfriend type, stereotypically named Bret. Of course, in stereotypical fashion, she lives above a tattoo parlor. Being somewhat a stereotype, it's revealed that she left home after her dad stereotypically left her mum (who lives in a stereotypical suburban middle-class house). This incredibly unique and interesting character (*laughs ironically*) is dragged into a supernatural nightmare after a call from the school nurse reveals that her little brother has not been getting any sleep at home: instead electing to drift off during class. Cue all manner of subtextual revelations that lead to the discovery of a secret past and a deeply buried (*ghostly wail*) secret.

A beautifully stylised finale.
The concept itself maintains its interesting and genuinely spooky potential, and we can likely credit that piece of innovation to the film - given that it was helmed by the creator of that concept. And it's where Sandberg deepens the 'lore' of the creature (Diana, as it's known) that the film both leaps and stumbles. The backstory itself is a hokey pokey mess.... a shitshow reserved for lackluster bomb-busters like 'Ouija'. Something about *KIND OF A SPOILER* the mother, Sophie, going to an insanely creepy mental asylum when she was like 10 and meeting an insanely creepy girl who looks like the girl from the ring who was sensitive to the light and then she got inside Sophies head but the doctors killed her by accident by shining a bright light on her??? *breathes* Some kind of treatment for light sensitivity that's the equivalent of throwing a giant fucking peanut at somebody with a nut allergy.*END OF SPOILER*. Joking aside,  in the deepening of the core concepts of Diana herself, Sandberg hits gold when we discover that, in black light, the creature can survive and be seen at the same time. As you can imagine, this makes for some incredible scenes involving the incandescent glow of a conveniently placed fluorescent tube (especially when it's discovered that she's gone and written messages in her blood all over the walls). And, of course, there's now a need to build some framework for the monster to kill people. In the original short, nothing of that sort happened, and I'm pleased to say that Sandberg has gone down ye olde slasher route of just having the creature cut it's victims to death. better that than some supernatural curse bullshit. This expanding mythology is enough to create some sort of a series out of Lights Out. It's unnecessary, and funnily enough the ending seems to discount a sequel, but it's be interesting to see how Sandberg improves on his go this time around. Or someone else? Who knows?

Some more excellent composition and colouration!
Ultimately, with the core concept of a terrifying creature sorted, and the stupid fucking backstory taking a backseat (unearthed via a series of perfectly working tapes paused at exactly the right moment in a perfectly working ancient tape player), the success of Lights Out is going to depend chiefly on the quality of it's style, acting, and substance. Stylistically, there are flourishes here that suggest a bright future (no pun intended) for Sandberg. The blinking red neon of the tattoo parlor sign illuminates the action in a convenient (the creature advances between blinks) and beautiful manner; the UV lit finale is an incredibly well thought-out visual piece, and the creature itself looks stunning (in it's silhouette form). The shocks come thick and fast - effective in many cases too. Surprising, really, for what turned out to be a PG-13 horror. Sure, they're jumpscares, but I did jump a few times, so they're not bad at all. This isn't to say that it's 'terrifying': at many points I was resolutely calm, which perhaps makes the film an anticlimax only because I saw the brutally scary Blair Witch recently.

 In terms of acting, it's not awful, but nothing to write home about. Teresa Palmer gives a good performance as Rebecca, and this is backed up by another reasonably strong show by Maria Bello as a fragile mother coping with depression. These two performances effectively carry the weight of the film, with both Bello ans Palmer perhaps being a little too pantomime, but still being effective enough to win our hearts and convince in their roles.

Yes, a mannequin factory. Why? Because.
The substance? Lights Out deals with depression, as I've mentioned before. Diana is Sophie's depression visualised in an appropriate form that almost 'infects' the members of her family that she comes into contact with - and threatens to overcome them too. She remains unable to rid herself of the demon, and while others around her know that Diana is unsafe and is posing a deadly threat, she seems to accept it into her life. In short, it provides an interesting examination of how this devastating mental illness can destroy the lives of families, and how it's not just as simple as 'cheer up!' to ease the pain.... The ending follows in these very footsteps, and I'll say now that I thought it was entirely appropriate and called for - perhaps even adding another layer of meaning to this exploration; but many others have rallied against it. Probably a byproduct of SJW culture. Like I said before though, Sandberg still has the absolutely fucking H U G E problem of competing with the Babadook! A film whose script was slightly clunky and obvious, but packed an emotional punch (as well as being scarier than Lights Out). Believe it or not, Sandberg's script is even MORE obvious and clunky than the 2014 film, losing some points on that front. It's not going to discount the film from its interesting viewpoints, but it is going to remove the traces of originality it had on that front.

So there we have it: a mixed bag. Sandberg has a great creature, and, in many scenes, a great sense of style. His film explores an interesting theme, in a competent (albeit very obvious and clunky) way; and at least two of his major players put on a good show. However, the acting is decidedly a mixed bag; most of the scares are cheap; the backstory is a load of bollocks; and frankly the film feels too much like the Babadook at points to let it claim the thematic beats as its own. He reaches up and almost clinches that fourth star, but slips in the process and falls into a comfortable three. Look out though, with a better script we could have another star director on our hands!

Lights Out gets 3 stars!

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