58. Lights Out

Lights Out had me at “Hello”.  I consider its trailer to be the best of the year and after seeing it for the first time, Lights Out leaped close to the top of my must-see list.  In fact, I put off the new Star Trek film until tomorrow in order to prioritize Lights Out, tonight.  It’s been getting great reviews and has a simple, yet effective concept.  It’s so simple that it’s kind of bewildering that it hasn’t been done, before.

It’s interesting that I posted a #ThrowbackThursday post about The Ring, today, because I was reminded of that movie in several ways as I watched Lights Out.  The most critical similarity is that they both presented original concepts to the horror genre that use our real-life fears of the supernatural as a launching pad.  The Ring played on our worries that the monster in the scary movie will come to get us if we watch it.  Lights Out preys upon our very basic, core fear of the dark.  As long as the lights are on, nothing will get me.  This film takes that literally.  As I said: simple and effective.

But not as effective as it could have been.  Not for me, at least.  First off, allow me to state that Lights Out succeeds as a film.  The characters are well-developed and -portrayed.  The writers and actors play it honestly, speaking and behaving as real people with their life experience would speak and behave in the same situation.  This is critical to every film, and there are no issues with that here.

The creature design is masterfully done, as well.  Thanks to the premise, mostly only the silhouette of the monster is visible.  It’s a visually disturbing silhouette, however, and I’ve stated before that the less that is seen of the creature, the scarier the film will be.  The sound crew do their job, as well, as the creaks, scratches, and snaps that accompany her presence are extremely disturbing.

In addition, the story, itself, is solid.  The narrative is character-focused and -driven.  There are real stakes and I would have found it difficult to not be invested in the cast and their plights.  And, yes, I meant to pluralize the final word in the previous sentence.  The story is layered and there is more going on here than simply a supernatural infestation.  When I say that there are stakes, I’m not only referring to those of life-and-death.  While those physical stakes are certainly present, there are also emotional stakes relating to the relationships that are explored in the film.  Those relationships drive the action and mold several satisfying character arcs that add an extra layer of depth to the film, paying off magnificently in the climax.

My problem comes not from the story elements, themselves, but with the story construction.  I mentioned that horror films are scarier when it’s difficult to visually see the threat, and that’s true.  But there’s another component to that idea that I’ve also brought up in previous posts.  Not only should the audience see as little as possible of the threat, but we should also know as little as possible of it.

This is where the film makes its only substantial misstep.  But I feel that it will affect the film dramatically for some (as it did for me).  I won’t go into details because I refuse to spoil anything, but the audience is completely filled in on exactly who this creature is and her backstory incredibly early in the film.  She’s humanized almost from the very outset.  For me, this diminishes the sense of urgency and creates sympathy for her.  I could see the characters being threatened by her, but I rarely felt that the primaries were in any real danger.  And it was because I knew who she was, what mattered to her, and what her motivations were.

Because I don’t like to criticize without offering up an alternative, I’ll say that I believe this could have been avoided.  The story could contain the exact same beats, but laid out and presented in a different, more effective way.  Keep her history a mystery (rhyme unintentional, but I’m not editing it) and that would add an extra layer to the film as a whole.  Construct the narrative so that the connections are only made at the apex of the finale and then we have a compelling anecdote that’s filled with dread and features the same emotional payoff at the end.

I could hear other members of the audience reacting appropriately to the scary scenes, so this won’t be an issue for all.  But, from my perspective, learning too much too soon lowers the creature’s threat level from red to orange.  I don’t want to suggest that I dislike the movie.  That’s not the case.  But it doesn’t reach the instant classic status that movies like The Ring or both of The Conjuring films do, like I was hoping it would.  Ultimately, what we get is an original concept that works as a very good film, with some pretty good – but slightly underachieving – horror elements.  I would still rate it as the second-best horror film of the year.  I just really wanted it to be in the running for the best.

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