'Lights Out': LAFF Review

Accomplished, but not especially distinctive.

Something wicked is coming for Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello in David F. Sandberg’s suspenseful directorial debut.

A surprisingly maternal horror movie that relies as much on fraying emotional bonds as supernatural suspense to create tension, Lights Out deals with an array of primal fears that threaten to unravel a family’s fundamental relationships, along with their sanity.

Set to represent the second major release in as many months from New Line Cinema and multihyphenate James Wan (here serving as producer) when it opens in July, the new feature probably can’t contemplate returns comparable to The Conjuring 2, launching this weekend. Coming in a few notches below the terror factor of Wan’s most exemplary material, this somewhat less-satisfying variation of an ill-fated haunting nonetheless represents a solid debut for Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg, who will next direct Annabelle 2 for Wan’s Atomic Monster banner.

After a series of short horror films with titles like Not So Fast, Attic Panic and Closet Space, Sandberg caught the attention of Wan and producer Lawrence Grey with Lights Out, which went viral online and resulted in an invitation to direct a feature-length version. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay preserves Sandberg’s central premise and protagonist, now identified as Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a young woman who had good reason to move out on her unstable mother Sophie (Maria Bello) not long after her father abandoned both of them. With a history of mental illness, Sophie’s manic-depressive episodes were disturbing and unpredictable, but not nearly as awful as her frequent hallucinations, which substantially contributed to Rebecca’s own chronic insomnia.

So she moved miles away to downtown Los Angeles, never returning home until her 10-year-old stepbrother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) begins suffering similar symptoms after his father Paul (Billy Burke) mysteriously dies. Martin tells Rebecca that their mother has been secretly conversing with someone named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), who seems inseparably attached to Sophie, but only emerges in the dark. Rebecca quickly recognizes the frightening threat that Diana poses, so she relocates Martin to her downtown apartment, determined to shield him from Diana’s evil predation. Soon however, Child Protective Services orders Rebecca to bring him back to Sophie’s, forcing her to realize that safeguarding her family will mean confronting Diana, along with all of her deepest fears.

Heisserer’s elaboration of a malevolent being that lurks in darkness because it can’t survive in the light develops expressive proportions with Sandberg’s visual interpretation of Diana as a blackly charred, spidery figure with piercing claws, viciously intent on protecting her relationship with Sophie. Like the Paranormal Activity franchise, Lights Out firmly establishes the principal that spirits don’t haunt houses, they haunt people.

Palmer (The Choice) capably seizes the role of Rebecca with both grim determination and growing compassion that develops with increasing understanding of Sophie’s dire predicament. Bello, in a rather underwritten part that relies excessively on some overly convenient narrative exposition, still effectively conveys Sophie’s confounding mental disabilities, which ultimately can’t compromise her fierce maternal instincts. As an eminently relatable audience surrogate, Bateman (Annabelle) sympathetically channels Martin’s terror and confusion. A former gymnast and stunt performer, Vela-Bailey turns in an impressive and memorably chilling performance as Diana.

Relying primarily on practical effects and locations rather than CGI, Sandberg evinces evident genre sensibility with fluid camerawork and inventive framing while also reaping the benefits of Wan’s A-team crew, including ace cinematographer Marc Spicer (Furious 7) — whose evocative lighting design consistently ratchets up tension, production designer Jennifer Spence (Insidious) and co-editor Kirk Morri (The Conjuring). Sound designer Bill R. Dean also excels at crafting the insect-like clicks and whirrs that characterize Diana’s movements and occasional, garbled speech.

Venue: LA Film Festival (Limelight)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production companies: New Line Cinema, Grey Matter, Atomic Monster
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer
Producers: James Wan, Lawrence Grey, Eric Heisserer
Executive producers: Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter, Richard  Brener, Steven Mnuchin, Michael Clear, Jack Murray, Ben Everard
Director of photography: Marc Spicer
Production designer: Jennifer Spence
Costume designer: Kristin M. Burke
Editors: Kirk Morri, Michel Aller
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting directors: Rich Delia, Angela Demo

Rated PG-13, 80 minutes