Why do we still get scared at thing that go bump in the night? At the movies, I mean. Lights Out, the feature-length (well, 80 minutes) film version of a horror short that went viral online, allows Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg to earn his stripes as a director in the big leagues. It was horror master James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) who gave Sandberg the go-ahead for a $5 million feature.
He does a solid job of raising hell. With screenwriter Eric Heisserer fleshing out a 146-second short, Lights Out provides the reliably smashing Maria Bello a chance to dig into the juicy role of Sophie, a mother who keeps driving away the men in her life — not to mention her children. Insomniac daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has long ago moved out of the spookily-shaded family dump to an apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Now Rebecca’s 10-year-old stepbrother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) wants to head for the hills, or in this case, her apartment. His father (Billy Burke) has died at work for reasons unknown and Mom sees dead people. Make that one dead person: Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), a social outcast who did time with Sophie years ago in a mental institution. She’s is a real chatterbox, and harmless enough … until the lights go out. Then Diana starts death-dancing around the house like a spider hunting for a fly, namely anyone who gets in the way of her and Sophie. Turn on the lights, Diana’s gone. Turn them back on, it’s Halloween!
Predictable stuff, energized by some spiffy scare effects from cinematographer Marc Spicer who works wonders with underlighting. But the on/off tricks would grow tiring without actors who perform well beyond the call of fright-house duty. Bello makes a sympathetic figure out of a loving mother who thinks Diana is something she’s conjured out of her own subconscious. Her scenes with the skilled Palmer have a touching quality that suggest a real mother-daughter relationship grown toxic. It’s these two actors who make something hypnotic and haunting out of a movie built out of spare parts.