At this point, it’s well-known that the horror genre is one of the hardest genres to have an original thought in. Chances are, if you think of an idea that you believe is creative and new, it’s probably already been done 100 different times and in many different ways. This has led to filmmakers taking ideas that aren’t exactly original and trying to retool them in one way or another in an attempt to make them feel fresh for an audience who are familiar with standard horror tropes. A recent example would be something like the brilliant “The Cabin in the Woods.” Would you really want to see another film that’s simply about a group of teenagers who go to a cabin and get killed off? No, which is why the filmmakers took the premise and put a fun and unexpected twist on it.
It’s a somewhat similar situation to “Lights Out,” a film that uses the old “creature can’t stand the light” setup, but surrounds it with its own rules and backstory. The film revolves around a young boy, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), his older sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), and their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). The father of the family died under mysterious circumstances (though we witness it in full), which left the mentally-unstable Sophie to take care of Martin. We soon learn that there is a presence in his house, the same one which was responsible for his father’s death, which has caused him to lose sleep. Rebecca is eventually brought into the situation, but seeing that her mother is still not quite right, she decides to take Martin with her to her apartment. However, the presence (which only appears in the dark) follows them, forcing Rebecca to get to the bottom of a decades-old mystery involving her mother’s troubled past.
At first glance, “Lights Out” sounds like nothing more than your typical ghost story, with some kind of spirit attaching itself to a typical horror movie family, but as the film moves along, we find that it’s a little something different. We eventually learn all about this apparition: who it was, where it came from, and why it’s bothering these poor people. What’s particularly interesting about this backstory is that it doesn’t make much sense at all, but stranger still, it actually works as one of the film’s strengths.
If we were to focus on the simple premise of a ghost that attacks people in the dark, we’d have a film that may have a few jump scares to offer, but it would be rather dull in the long run. However, attach to that a backstory that’s this silly and nonsensical, and you just might be one of the few that’s able to see the amusement that the film has to offer among the plentiful scares. That’s not to say that the film is meant to be taken as a joke. It’s played deadly serious, as well it should be for the story it wants to tell. It’s just that when the filmmakers try to connect all the pieces together, they’re left with a puzzle that looks like it doesn’t fit together so well.
As far as the film’s horror element goes, it mostly contains the same basic jump scares that you get with every film of the genre these days, but when they’re placed and timed as well as this, they still end up being rather effective (especially with an audience that’s easily scared and ready to jump out of their seat at the slightest loud noise). It does a good job of playing on the age-old fear of the dark, which is another basic genre element, except here it’s played up quite literally with our protagonists fighting against a force that can only get at them in the darkness. It probably won’t be particularly scary to older viewers or fans of horror films that have seen it all, but that doesn’t mean you can’t respect how well it’s executed.
“Lights Out” ends up being a good example of taking an oft-used premise and turning it into something that’s highly effective. Like the recent “The Conjuring 2,” it’s probably not going to be something that completely bowls you over. As far as horror offerings go though, it’s another satisfying meal as we wait for the next big one (or at least the next satisfying one). It may be a little goofy and might have you scratching your head at its bizarre attempts at logic, but in a genre where it’s hard to find films that engage you nowadays, it makes for a fun and thrilling experience. 3/4 stars.
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