Lights Out, the new horror movie about a monster that can only strike when, well, the lights are out, is a near masterpiece of scary movie craft.
There are sequences in this film that left the audience at my screening joyfully applauding their creativity and audacity. And the movie’s central metaphor — the monster is depression! — is surprisingly durable, allowing for some great character moments.
Yes, it has problems — one big one in particular. But it’s the kind of movie where I realized about 10 minutes in how wrapped up I was in the lives of the characters, and realized with about 10 minutes left that I was holding my breath that the director and screenwriter wouldn’t screw everything up.
And while I loved the ending, it’s proven incredibly divisive for what it might seem to say about depression. So to talk about why I enjoyed Lights Out so much, I’m going to have to spoil some things. I’ll warn you before I do so, however.
But before that, let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the divisive of Lights Out.
Good: The monster is terrific on a bunch of levels
Let’s just start with the fact that a monster that can’t attack when someone is standing in a pool of light is a great idea for a movie monster. Considering that films themselves are just contrasts of light and darkness, the concept gives director David F. Sandberg lots to play with.
There have been other creatures like this in movie history (perhaps most famously in Pitch Black, the film that spawned Vin Diesel’s Riddick character), but what makes Lights Out so much fun is that it takes place in our world, where light sources can pop up just about anywhere.
In particular, the film uses everything from candles to cellphone screens to increase the tension in moments when the monster has, say, cut power to a city block and the characters need to cross vast swaths of darkness with only their wits to protect them.
Lights Out is obviously filmed on a smaller budget — it seems to take place in about two different locations, with just five or six characters — but the fact that it can turn literally any place into a house of horrors simply by flipping a light switch gives it a great boost when it comes to staging terrifying sequences.
And make no mistake: This is one scary monster. Named Diana, she cuts a creepy figure in silhouette, and she’s got long, long fingernails she can use to attack. She’ll freak you out.
Good: The use of the monster as a metaphor is better thought-out than in many films
Not since The Babadook have I seen a movie that used its monster as a metaphor for mental illness as effectively as this one does.
In particular, Diana has haunted the same family for two generations, and this serves as a sneaky way for the film’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, to explore the ways parents fear their own mental illnesses might be passed along to their children.
There’s so much in this film that feels informed by a life haunted by depression, from the way family matriarch Sophie (Maria Bello) sometimes just locks herself in her bedroom because she’s not sure she can spend time around her kids to the way that her daughter, Becca (Teresa Palmer), runs her fingers along scars on her arms that are from Diana’s long nails but might as well be from self-harm.
In the tradition of the best horror, Lights Out leaves all of this on the edges of the story, the better for you to fill in some of the blanks on your own. But it’s there, and the more you start to think about it, the more Diana’s function as a metaphor for depression works beautifully.
But Heisserer and Sandberg also dig into depression itself. Diana waxes and wanes the more Sophie takes her anti-depressants, and we learn that she first met Diana when she was committed as a teenager because her parents evidently didn’t know how else to handle her mental condition. There’s room here, obliquely, to find discussion of how people with mental illness have often been treated via being shut away
Mostly good: The acting is largely solid
Bello and Palmer are actresses I don’t always spark to, and there are early scenes where Palmer feels a bit like she’s not the right center for this film, her performance a little listless and disaffected. But that turns out to be intentional on her part. Becca is listless and disaffected.
By the time Sophie and Becca are hashing out their complicated relationship around the family dinner table, lighting fixtures the only thing keeping them safe, I was invested in the two of them.
Gabriel Bateman gives a solid "little kid in a horror movie" performance as Martin, Becca’s younger brother, who has attracted Diana’s attentions in recent months. (In general, I love how the characters already know about Diana and expect the audience to catch up, mostly.)
The movie hinges on his relationships with Sophie and Becca, and that those largely work is a tribute to him.
As Becca’s boyfriend, Bret, Alexander DiPersia rounds out the main cast. And he’s ... fine. He’s playing an impossible character — the good guy Becca keeps pushing away because of her own problems — and he’s at the center of the film’s best scene. But it’s not hard to wish he were played by a slightly more dynamic actor all the same.
Bad: The exposition is airlifted in from some other movie
Lights Out is very, very short — a little over 80 minutes, and that’s with the closing credits. (Without, it’s closer to 75.)
Yet it’s also lean. The actual story of Becca and her family figuring out how to survive Diana takes up only around an hour of screen time, without rushing or padding.
Thus, Sandberg and Heisserer make the choice to drop in a backstory for Diana that takes up an inordinate amount of time and tries way too hard to explain a monster that works better as metaphor anyway.
Once Diana becomes the ghost of an old friend of Sophie’s (this isn’t really a spoiler), she seems much less elemental than she does when she’s just attacking for no real reason. Plus, the exposition sequences seem to arrive at random and grind the story to a halt. They’re handled very poorly.
All right. Last chance to get out before I spoil the ending of this thing. Major, major spoilers follow.
Divisive: The ending of the film is either brilliant — or wrongheaded
In the end, Lights Out argues that Diana’s sole connection to this plane is Sophie, who realizes that if she’s not alive, the monster can’t hurt her children. After firing a gun at Diana during the film’s climax (and the way Diana disappears from dark spaces when the gun’s barrel flares is really neat), Sophie uses the gun to kill herself. Diana is gone, and the family can start healing.
In his review of the film, the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd says this is risible when it comes to the film’s otherwise solid portrayal of depression. It’s not hard to read it as, say, an argument that the only way to cure depression is via suicide. And, yes, as a literal reading of the film’s text, that’s more or less accurate — especially if this movie does well and spawns the inevitable sequel.
But I was impressed by the audacity of that bleakness. In particular, Lights Out joins a recent movement of works about mental illness that attempt to argue that sometimes, those who suffer from it get to a place where suicide can seem like a relief or release — though that choice leaves emotional wreckage for those left behind.
Most recent examples are from the literary world, particularly Hanya Yanagihara’s massive novel A Little Life, but "The Gift," the fifth season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also plays with similar ideas. These stories are, in other words, not defenses of suicide but occasionally metaphorical explanations of it, an attempt to put the audience in the mental state of someone who makes that choice and force us to try to understand it.
That’s a complicated thing to explore, but I think it’s worth doing, if only because it destigmatizes the discussion of suicide itself — and thus mental illness. Both have been topics considered unworthy of polite conversation for ages in America.
If these works are interested in exploring the why of suicide (sometimes someone suffering from a mental illness feels it has become too unbearable to live with), we can perhaps better understand how to help those we know who struggle with those suicidal thoughts. We need to face down these dark fears — which is where horror, which has always helped us confront that which terrifies us, comes in.
Don’t get me wrong: Lights Out is not as thorough an examination of this idea as A Little Life or even Buffy. But if there’s a genre that can take this incredibly complex and dark idea and bring it out into the light, so to speak, it’s horror.
Lights Out could have done a slightly better job of preparing the audience for this final moment, but when it arrives, it has a dark grandeur to it that elevates the film from very fun to something surprisingly powerful.
Lights Out is playing in theaters throughout the country. See it even though I just told you the ending.