Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Lights Out (2016)

I have written here before -- and recently -- about my ennui with the modern studio horror film formula.

Basically that equation involves an affluent white family (with 2.5 children, a dog, and a patently un-affordable home) defeating some ethnic horror, and pulling itself out of a pit of dysfunction (eating disorders, alcoholism, infidelity) in the process. 

I wouldn’t mind that formula for one or two genre films, but it is the defining paradigm of a variety of most studio efforts in recent years for example The Possession (2012), Sinister (2012), and The Darkness (2016).

Indeed, I was overjoyed to watch Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016) recently, since, at the very least, the film asks us to define family in a different way. There, the heroes are ethnically-diverse “carnies” facing an aristocratic “elite” threat.  They are not simply, rich white people, with rich, white people problems.

I have nothing against rich white people, by the way.

I complain about this trend in horror in the same fashion I ultimately complained about the “teen” trend in horror films of the 1980s.  

After a while, the repetition and familiarity of such protagonists is simply mind-numbing, and harmful to the genre.  (To pick another example: in the found footage format we could do with a few less “documentary filmmaker” protagonists.)

When the protagonists are always the same, dealing with the same stakes, and winning the same victories, horror films lose their unpredictability. And horror is a genre that requires unpredictability if it is to remain scary.

Lights Out (2016) is yet another rich white people in jeopardy movie. We have dysfunction in the form of a psychologically-ill mother, played by Maria Bello. But we also have the two children, and the patently affordable house. 

No dog, alas.

And yet, I’ll confess, I prefer this film to recent examples of the formula (see: The Darkness) because the director, David F. Sandberg, has done a commendable job defining the film’s menace in terms of images, or visuals.

Make no mistake, the narrative behind the film’s menace (a ghoul called “Diana”) is right out of The Ring (2002).  Instead of a terrifying girl named Samara, we get Diana.  Both characters spent time in mental institutions, and both characters reach out from beyond the grave to haunt the living

So no, Lights Out’s story is no great shakes.

But the imagery here is truly effective. There are moments in the film that are chillingly scary, since Lights Out plays on the universal human fear of the dark.  Director Sandberg finds inventive, and visually appealing ways to exploit this fear.  The result is a film with many shocks and scares. 

Is such visual distinction enough to recommend the film? 

Perhaps not, on most days, but the Lights Out is punctuated with enough terror to keep things lively and also makes a noble attempt to connect the horror to one character’s mental illness in a way that is intriguing.

“There’s no you without me.”

Following the unusual death of his father, Paul (Billy Burke), young Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is too disturbed to sleep. His mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) seems to be in contact with a malevolent spirit, Diana that can appear in darkness and physically harm him.

When Martin is tagged by social services at school, Martin’s older sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) gets involved. She is all-too familiar with her mother’s psychosis, and she remembers Diana’s previous appearances, during her own young childhood.

Sophie resists an intervention by her children, even as Diana launches an attack to kill Sophie’s children, rivals for her affection in her twisted, evil eyes.

“If Mom’s crazy, does it mean we’re crazy too.”

Lights Out is a movie based on a purely visual concept, and I admit…I like that.  A lot.  The gimmick here is that when the lights are on, Diana can’t touch you or hurt you. But when the lights are out, she is right there, moving closer to you, preparing to strike.

The film’s opening scene, set in warehouse, is sensationally effective establishing the parameters of Diana’s abilities. 

There are mannequins on the floor of the large facility, and it is closing time. An employee sees something in the dark...a creepy figure looming close by, and warns Paul. Sadly, Paul doesn’t heed the warning and comes face-to-face with Diana in a scene involving a dark office, and twitchy overhead lights.  The scene is plumbed for maximum terror, and gives the movie a tremendous boost early on.

Later scare scenes are also dynamically appealing in terms of their visuals.  Theresa’s first encounter with Diana (in the present) takes place in the shadow of a lurid red neon light outside her bedroom window. 

That light turns on and off at regular intervals.  The red light, the regularity of the lights turning on and off, and our fear of the dark all work together to make the scene quite frightening.

Finally, there’s a scene near the climax involving black light, or ultra-violet light. In this sequence, Theresa and Martin probe into Diana’s world, and find out she has been far more active (and angry) than could be detected under normal light. The black light exposes her world fully to them, and terrifyingly, it is, right there, in plain sight: in the basement.

The teaser, the scene with the neon red light, and the sequence with the creepy, cold, black-light all succeed in making Lights Out memorable, and quite terrifying. 

For one thing, good horror scenes often involving playing with audience expectations. And these particular scenes -- with lights turning on and off at regular intervals, or exposing secrets in the dark -- level the playing field between protagonists and antagonists.  The jumps arise when predictability gets unexpectedly shattered, and our anticipation of the routine is violated.

In its own way, Lights Out concerns an intriguing theme too: a parent overcome by mental illness. 

Theresa fled the family because of Sophie’s last bout with psychosis, years earlier. Now, it is happening again with Martin. The children attempt to save her with the aforementioned intervention, and clearly Sophie struggles to balance two realities, the mad reality (with Diana) and the daylight one in which she loves her children. On the TV, in one scene, Mommie Dearest (1980) plays.  In case your memory needs refreshing, that's a film about an abusive mother, and her impact on her child. 

Given the fact that this particular movie gets excerpted in Lights Out, and  that much of the story involves Theresa’s inability to partner with a nice and helpful boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), one might conclude that the film is really about how mental illness made it impossible for Sophie to create a secure attachment to her children.  Now, her children can't attach securely to others. 

Instead, that attachment is fearful in nature. 

Sometimes -- when the lights are on -- the children find a loving, supporting mother.  

When the lights are off, however, they are in physical danger from her, or her alter-ego.  And indeed, Diana is very much an alter-ego, I would suggest.  We learn that Sophie is Diana's only connection to the world, and she tells Sophie (both in writing, and verbally) that “There’s no you without me.” 

Diana exists, at least in the movie’s “present,” as a manifestation of Sophie’s mental illness.

Lights Out is not as deep, psychologically-speaking, as a film such as The Babadook (2014), yet I commend the filmmakers for attempting to connect the light/dark of Diana’s nature to the light/dark nature of mental illness, and Sophie’s psyche.  

It’s developed and explored just enough to permit Lights Out to stand up as more than a mere roller-coaster ride.  I find it highly intriguing that the film's writer never explains what “Diana” is now, in any concrete way.  She is tangible, so she’s not a ghost.  She’s not a demon, either.  Instead, as noted above, I believe she is a physical manifestation of Sophie’s illness. She is an avatar for Sophie's disturbed psyche.

When the film ends, Diana is defeated, but also -- spoilers -- Sophie loses her battle with mental illness.  She does so in a way that frees her children, one can conclude, and one that is heroic. But the idea of the movie is that for those who suffer with it, mental illness is always there.  

When you walk out into the sun -- or turn on the lights -- it may appear to be gone.  But return to the solitary darkness, and it’s there again, just like Diana.

Lights Out’s primary deficit involves the details of Diana’s back story, which are largely unnecessary if the character needs to be seen simply as a manifestation of Sophie’s mental illness.  

Instead, we get all this (ultimately unimportant...) material about Diana having a sensitivity to light, and the doctors’ (botched) attempt to cure it.  Then we get hints that she can “get inside” the heads of her friends and family, haunting them forever.  So, she’s basically a knock-off of Samara, and other supernatural “girl” monsters.

Fortunately, this film boasts one other virtue worth noting in a review.  It runs just 81 minutes, and so the scary scenes are packed close together, and there is not too much time available to suss out all the narrative improbabilities. 

So here’s a prescription for an effective horror film of the 21st century.  Create a powerful sense of visual menace.  Explore it for 80 minutes and then…Lights Out.

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