At some point or another we've all been a little petrified by the dark. Either you've caught something out of the corner of your eye in the shadows, heard a creak in the wilderness, or just watched too much Are You Afraid Of The Dark? as a kid. But, somehow, rather than making you scared, for most of its running time Lights Out just makes you annoyed by the dark, instead. Which is quite a feat considering that trying to frighten us is its raison d'etre.
Like any good horror film, Lights Out has a simple enough premise to then try and wrap its terror around. After the death of his father at the hands of an evil spirit that's mysteriously connected to his mother Sophie (Maria Bello), pre-teen Martin (Gabriel Bateman) seeks help from his older sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Martin is unable to sleep because the ghoul strikes in the dark, and when Rebecca admits that she herself was previously haunted by the demon, the pair soon join together to fight it off once and for all to save their mother.
There's actually quite a lot of mileage in this premise, which is what makes it even more frustrating that Lights Out presents it in such an annoyingly familiar and recognizable fashion. Lights Out's mythology is painstakingly teased out, with flashbacks arriving on cue to fill in the blanks, while there's a mishmash of hackneyed family themes and conflicts that are delivered and presented to us through atrocious dialogue that try to drive the plot along and pull you in as a viewer but are instead just laughable.
Even director David F Sandberg's attempts to deviate from this platitude with suspenseful sequences don't quite hit the mark. Sure there are a few jumps, but the musical cues and tempo is stolen from dozens of its genre peers, the demon is kept too far away from us to truly get under our skin, and the return to its banal characters and their attempts to find out exactly what's going on stunts any momentum it momentarily possesses. Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello add some flashes of intriguing characterization and depth, but the film has no interest in exploring them in any detail and quickly moves on.
But rather than succumbing to inevitability with its finale and confirming its place in history as another tepid, overly "Hollywood-ized" and glossy modern horror, Lights Out actually flourishes. There are numerous genuinely strong thrills, a great pace, a few tub-thumping moments when our characters are on the cusp of death, and even some emotion, too.
It's almost as if the previous hour of tedium had been on purpose to lull audiences into a false sense of security. But that would be giving Lights Out too much credit, as it still follows along its trajectory in a predictably plotted manner, but just does so in a much smoother style that you'd have assumed before its final act commenced. That doesn't forgive its earlier flaws, though. It just means that it's satisfactory. And nothing more than that.
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