Movie Review: Lights Out

Horror film delivers a scary mood, but offers very little that is new

Lights Out
(Zhasni a zemřeš)
Directed by David F. Sandberg
With Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Emily Alyn Lind, Alicia Vela-Bailey

Darkness is a primal human fear, so making a horror film based on it is sort picking at low-hanging fruit. But that doesn't make Lights Out a bad movie, just not a very original one. The relatively short feature, clocking in at 81 minutes counting the extensive end credits, has viewers cringing in fear for much of the time.

The film signals that it will favor cliches over originality by starting out in a dark building filled with creepy mannequins as a mysterious figure begins to appear and disappear. Light seems to scare it away, but the lights are on a timer hooked to a motion sensor. The shadowy mannequins are lurking as fright bait throughout the opening.

The mysterious figure is a bit too reminiscent of the scary girl in The Ring, down to the dark hair obscuring the face, and the eventual explanation will have horror fans recalling how may times they have heard something similar. The list would spoil what passes for a plot.

After the fairly effective opening, the main action moves to a dark suburban house, where something is clearly amiss. The boy living in he house, Martin (played by Gabriel Bateman) is afraid to sleep at night and falls asleep in school instead. His mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) insists to social workers that nothing is wrong, even though every curtain in the house is drawn shut and most of the light bulbs are missing. A similar scenario was used in The Others, an effective and original horror film from 2001.

Bello has an extensive career including David Cronenberg's 2005 film A History of Violence and more recently the big budget sci-fi film The 5th Wave. This sort of derivative horror film seems a bit beneath her. Many horror films suffer from a cast that struggles with acting. Bello easily lives up to the task at hand.

Australian actress Teresa Palmer is billed as the actual lead actress. She also is not a newcomer, having appeared in films such as Grudge 2 and the zombie comedy Warm Bodies.

She appears as Rebecca, the runaway daughter who comes back to try to save her brother, as she knows that there is something wrong going on at the house. While not exactly a scream queen, this horror film role fits more neatly into her resume.

Rebecca has a track record of being irresponsible, so getting anyone to help her get custody of her brother is going to be a long haul. The filmmakers can't resist the temptation, so Rebecca's flat is filled with gruesome heavy metal music posters, so even when nothing scary is happening it still looks a bit grim at her place.

Teresa Palmer creates a feisty enough character, but her boyfriend in the film is a bit of a bore. Alexander DiPersia plays Bret, and the character simply does not have that much to do except complain that he wants the relationship to evolve. He does provide some of the minor comic relief in the film, begging to be allowed to leave at least a sock in his girlfriend's place.

Gabriel Bateman as the terrorized boy is also a bit of a letdown. Of course everyone wants him saved from the lurking terror, but it would be better if he had a spark of personality.

Director David F. Sandberg has mostly made short films before and he proves he can deliver scares throughout the length of a feature. The film thankfully is long on mood and atmosphere, and short on gory carnage, which is a plus for some old-school horror fans.

The end is rather abrupt though, with no setup for a future story or extra bit of character development. It leaves a slightly unsatisfied feeling, like a date that ends right when the last bit of dinner is finished, but with no coffee or desert.

The Czech title, by the way, is a bit of a free translation. Zhasni a zemřeš means Turn Out the Lights and You Die.

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