Lights Out

LIGHTS OUT. Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, and Maria Bello. Directed by David F. Sandberg. Rated M (Sustained threat, supernatural themes and violence). 81 min.

This American supernatural-horror film is based on David Sandberg's award winning short film of the same name produced by him in 2013. It is a tale of a mother's children, who are stalked by an evil spirit that emerges only in the dark. This movie expands Sandberg's short film to full feature length.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) lives above a tattoo parlour in Los Angeles and is estranged from her mentally disturbed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Rebecca has moved away from home. She partners a dependent boyfriend, Brett (Alexander DiPersia), and her step-father, Paul (Billy Burke), met a nasty death.

Sophie has an inner demon and she has conversations with it. It is visiting Sophie's 10-year old son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who lives in his mother's house. Martin appeals to his step-sister, Rebecca, for help, and tells her of terrifying events that are happening to him at night. Rebecca recognises them as the same events that kept her terrified as a child, and she links what is happening to Martin to what happened to her years before. Martin has the same visions that she had; the demon is on the attack again; and his mother seems to be letting the demon do it.

The demon that is plaguing Martin is Diana, who feeds on fear, and the fear is related to something awful that happened to Diana years before. Diana was a close friend of Sophie, and something tragic occurred when she took part in an experiment that went terribly wrong in a mental hospital. Diana died, and now her spirit is inside Sophie, wanting to possess her, and obsessed with her.

Diana is a monster that needs the dark. The film aims to scare all the time, and doesn't let its tension go. At the heart of most supernatural-horror movies of this kind there is nearly always a dysfunctional family, and this film is no exception. It plays very effectively on children's' anxieties about scary things happening in their family. David Sandberg, as Director, gives the film's plot line extra sophistication, when he focuses on all members of the family coping with the same evil spirit.

Diana has good reason to be attached to Sophie, because Diana was abandoned by Sophie in the past. In spirit form, Diana has glowing eyes, piercing claws, terrible skin, shaggy hair, and moves like lighting. She is terrifying to look at, particularly when on the attack, and Martin is traumatised. The best way to get rid of the monster is to keep the lights on. Diana can't stand light. Her body reacts very badly to it, and she does everything she can to turn "lights out".

Technically, Sandberg, makes sure that whenever scary things happen in the movie, they take place in the shadows. When the lights are off, however, it is not entirely clear that someone is standing there, or we are looking at a harmless piece of furniture in the corner of the room. The visual ambiguity heightens the effect. The acting in the movie is good, the direction is clever, and the camera work behind the special effects is excellent. Lighting is used to special effect - whether it be by candle flame, from light-bulbs, or by flickering light or neon glow. True to its genre, the film builds up crescendo-style to a very scary (and rather plausible) finale in which Diana does her best to stay in the dark, and almost succeeds.

This is not a movie suitable for children at all. It is a maternal horror film that aims to shock, and it capitalises very effectively on a child's fear of nasty things that might be lurking in the dark. This psychological film is grim family fare with horror grafted onto it, but within the supernatural-horror genre it lives up very well to what its title promises.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office For Film and Broadcasting

Roadshow Films

Released July 21, 2016

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