Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lights Out Review

A couple of years back, there was a little horror short film that came out called Lights Out. It's just under three minutes long, but is a super effective little short film. I have it linked for you right there if you haven't seen it. Basically there's a mysterious figure that shows up when the lights get turned off, but disappears when the lights get turned on. When the lady in the short film keeps turning the light on and off, this creepy figure gets closer and closer. This feeds off people's fear of the dark, making it unsettling walking through your house at night when the lights are off. This is why it's so effective. It made its rounds on the internet and social media and got popular enough for it to be adapted into a feature-length film which was just released this past weekend. The advertising has smartly been pushing producer James Wan, who is a horror master, but the cool thing is that this movie is written and directed by David Sandberg, who is the man who wrote and directed the original short. Now he gets to expand his little story from three minutes to 80 minutes. This was a risky venture because some short films are better as short films as opposed to feature-length films. But Lights Out is an example that works well as both. It's a good short film and a good feature-length film.

As with the short film, Lights Out is about a mysterious, demonic woman figure that shows up when the lights are off and disappears when the lights get turned on. But it's also a whole lot more than that. First off, yes this mysterious demon lady is deadly. If you let her get too close without shining a light on her or turning the light on, she will grab you and hurt you. I'm not going to spoil if she actually kills anyone or not, but that's a definite possibility. Demon lady aside, the core of this movie is actually about a family. Yes, it has a plot! And a surprisingly good one with great characters. We have a mom who's a bit crazy, a young boy who lives with his crazy mom, an older sister who is grown up and living on her own, and a boyfriend to that sister. Mom spent a lot of time in a mental hospital when she was younger and is not doing well, so it's not a good situation for young boy. Older sister lives a bit of a sketchy life, but she sees this issue and is trying to get young boy to live with her instead of mother. The sister's boyfriend, who is NOT useless, plays the voice of reason in all this as he's trying to talk a bit of sense into his girl when she does things on a whim without thinking them through. On top of all this is the demon lady showing up and messing with their lives even more.

A horror film with a good plot, well-written characters, and good acting? Now there's a novel idea! I consider myself a horror fan, but I'm also a fan of film in general. I get frustrated with a lot of modern horror films because the focus often isn't on making a good movie. It's on making some quick cash. A lot of these horror films are dirt cheap to make, so even the smallest of box office returns in most cases will still be considered a profit. In the case of this film, the budget was only $5 million, so if it only made $20 million in its entire run, that would be considered a win. The fact that it made $20 million in it's first weekend alone must have the studio and filmmakers ecstatic right now. This has sadly caused many franchises to go downhill very fast. Take the Paranormal Activity movies for example. That first movie cost $15,000 to make and ended up with about $200 million worldwide. No surprise that we now have six of them, most of which are very poor quality. Studios get so caught up in the money that they will throw together a quick story, hire some b-list actors, throw in a bunch of jump scares, and call it a movie. Plot and characters get thrown out the window in favor of some quick cash. Thus when I get a horror movie like Lights Out that actually has a good plot and well-written characters, I become ecstatic.

All these main actors need to be mentioned by name here because they all did a great job. Our most recognizable name is Teresa Palmer as the older sister. She's had a handful of misses recently, so it's good to see her finally catch a break by being in a good movie again. Previously she has been most known for her role in Warm Bodies in 2013 as well as I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer's Apprentice before that. I've liked her in every movie I've seen her in and this movie is no different. She does a good job. Our young boy is played a kid named Gabriel Bateman. He's played a handful of small roles from movies and TV shows I have not seen, most notably being Annabelle. A good child actor can be hard to come by, but this kid holds his own and does a job. The boyfriend in the movie is played by Alexander DiPersia. Most impressive with him is that usually the boyfriend/girlfriend is the throwaway character destined to die and usually it's a very unemotional death used to scare our main character. Not the case here. He has a lot of charm and charisma and, as I said before, is the voice of reason. I appreciated that. Last but not least, the best individual performance of the movie came with our crazy mother played by Maria Bello. She comes nowhere near the performance of the crazy mother in The Babadook, but she does crazy decently well.

Now for the horror aspect of this movie. Story and characters are fantastic and I definitely appreciate that they are given attention in this movie. But if we're a horror movie, the most important part is the horror, right? Unfortunately this is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Mixed in with the great plot and interesting characters is a whole slew of horror cliches. This demon lady is honestly creepy and I'll get more into that in a second, but there are so many jump scares in this movie. I was disappointed that a movie with a concept so intriguing relied so heavily on jump scares. Jump scares in a movie aren't inherently bad. Don't get me wrong. But I appreciate a horror movie where jump scares aren't the focus. My favorite horror movies are the ones that are creepy and unsettling without having a ton of jump scares, but that's not what this movie is. It's jump scare after jump scare after jump scare. It got a bit old. The other thing is that they tried to give this demon lady a backstory, but they did a pretty cruddy job of it. If you're going to explain the villain, make sure its a well-written villain. I won't dive into spoilers, but this is a pretty poorly written villain and that made the second half of the movie a lot less scary. It would've been better if they just left that demon lady a mystery.

On this subject, I would say that there's three main branches of horror movies: psychological horror, supernatural horror, and slasher horror. With how vague the initial short story is, they could've taken this movie a number of different ways. I personally would've preferred it if they turned this into a psychological horror. Think of how creepy it would be if this demon lady remained a mystery and our main characters weren't even sure if she was real or if they were just going crazy. That would be terrifying and would legitimately make me paranoid when I'm in the dark for at least a week or so. As is, this is a supernatural horror movie, with an uninteresting, poorly-explained demon lady. Yet despite this, I will admit that the movie did a decently good job at being effective despite poor writing when it comes to this demon lady. Last night when I was getting ready for bed, I had to walk through our dark hallway because both of those lights are burnt out and that was a terrifying walk. I turned the corner to the bathroom and turned the lights on as fast as I could because I was positive that demon lady would be there. Thus while this movie isn't an epic psyhcological horror like The Babadook, I would say the initial 1978 Halloween movie is a good comparison, which I just watched this past week. The backstory for Michael Meyers is pretty poorly written and unbelievable, but they do such a good job at making him creepy anyways that the movie gets under your skin.

No, this isn't the best horror movie of the year. But it's decently effective. I was creeped out by the demon lady and I loved our storyline and characters. It was refreshing to see a horror movie take time to flesh out a story and characters because that doesn't happen super often in horror. Sure, I would've appreciated it if the movie were a psychological horror instead of a supernatural horror. I think they shouldn't have tried to explain this demon lady and I also think they shouldn't have relied so heavily on jump scares. But that's just a personal preference. It's worth noting that I was in a sold-out showing and almost everyone else there was jumping, yelling, screaming, and panicking at every little thing that happened and several rounds of applause broke out when a character did something good. They were all so into the movie that it was actually rather distracting and I found myself laughing at how scared everyone got and kinda wished that I was watching the movie in an empty theater. But at the same time, it showed me that despite my personal opinions, if horror movies make you jump easily, this one just will get under your skin fast. But back to my personal opinion, compared to other horror movies this year, this doesn't shine a candle to The Witch, but it's better than The Conjuring 2 and about on-par with The Shallows. Thus I will give Lights Out an 8/10.

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