This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
A young woman is forced to confront her past and her estranged family when her much younger half-brother is plagued by the same ghostly presence that drove her away from her mother when she was younger.
What we thought
This year has slowly started to see something of a resurgence in the quality of unexceptional but quietly effective horror films, with both Before I Sleep and the Conjuring 2 being far more enjoyable than most of the chillers of the past few years. They were derivative and unexceptional, to be sure, but at least they kind of delivered on their promise; easily clearing the low bar that the horror genre - or at least the mainstream Hollywood version of it - has set for itself over the past decade or so.
Lights Out, which is produced by the Conjuring's James Wan, continues that trend. It's hopelessly unoriginal and there's little about it that's truly terrifying but it still rises to the top of the heap thanks to a reliance on atmosphere, rather than cheap jump scares (though, as always, there are a few of those too) and on its willingness to actually craft engaging characters, who are played by a number of very fine actors.
Swedish director, David F Sandberg, makes a real impression here as a first-time feature-film director by turning his short film into something that certainly plays like a full-length feature but it noticeably lacking in flab. Like comedies, horror works best when constrained by a brief running time and that's certainly the case here, with the entire film and credits clocking in at less than 90 minutes.
More importantly, those 90 minutes spend as much time giving us a sense of who these characters are and why we should care about them, as it does trying to creep us out. Sandberg (and screenwriter Eric Heisserer) probably does put a foot wrong in starting the film with a reveal of the film's monster when it would have been far more effective in building up to that reveal as we learn more about the strange background of this particular family. But then, the monster is so unimpressive in its design and overly convoluted in its backstory that never properly showing it at all might have been the way to go.
With the monster itself being this underwhelming, Sandberg does smartly make abundant use of briefly fleeting shadows and unnerving scratching noises (definitely see this in a cinema with surround sound) to build up a sense of dread, as much as the creature itself. Similarly, even if you don't particularly about the thing threatening our protagonists, you do care about the protagonists themselves thanks to both strong performances from Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello and young newcomer Gabriel Bateman, as well as a willingness to actually devote some time to fleshing out who exactly these people are.
Lights Out doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, nor steer it in any particularly interesting directions but it's a very solid piece of genre filmmaking that promises even better things to come from its newbie director.