Few genres lend themselves to nostalgia like horror. From the Universal Monsters to cheeseball Vampira-hosted B pictures, from Italian giallo to gory 80s exploitation flicks in enormous VHS cases, one can reflect fondly on it all. Even the distasteful torture porn of the early 21st century wins a few points just for pissing so many people off.
But who will ever be nostalgic for the mainstream horror films that are flooding our marketplace today? Lights Out are yet another half-baked, PG-13 scare-em snoozer centered on an underdeveloped supernatural concept that won’t even give kids a good nightmare. I know it’s summertime, and some of the programmings can be ephemeral, but Lights Out’s greatest feat is how you can feel yourself forgetting this 81-minute piffle as you are actually watching it. That really takes something.
It would, however, be unfair to at least not praise its central gimmick, the same one found in director David F Sanberg’s viral two-and-a-half-minute video that grabbed the attention of horror mogul James Wan. Basically, there’s a ghoul that you can only see when it’s dark. Did I see a weird silhouette? Let me switch on the light. Nope, nothing. Turn the light off again and the creepy, semi-visible creature with catlike tapetum lucidum is even closer! Genuinely horrifying no matter how many times you see it.
Is this something you can stretch out into an entire movie? Sure! Herman Melville stretched out “there once was a fish this big – but it got away!” into the greatest novel in American letters. But Lights Out doesn’t come up with anything creative. Instead, it bogs down with typical bumps in the night as a screwy mom (Maria Bello) deals with her netherworld demons, threatening the safety of her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman).
Coming to Martin’s aid is his older half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) who must give up her lifestyle of fast living to accept being an adult. Her irresponsible ways manifest themselves in the heavy metal posters that hang in the bachelorette pad. You’ll notice them as she kicks her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) out of after their intimate visits. She’s a bad girl! Teresa Palmer may look like the picture of health, but we know she’s got problems because she lives above a tattoo parlor that blinks a red neon light all through the night.
That anachronistic set design serves a plot purpose, though, when Mom sends over her undead darkness monster. The rhythm of the flashing sign gives the sequence an entertaining cadence, one of about three moments in which Lights Out delivers on the promise of that viral video. (Another great moment involves inserting a carport into a chase.)
These very limited grace notes tell us that director Sanberg indeed has some visual chops, and could very well have a solid horror feature inside of him that will come out one day. Unfortunately, the script to Lights Out, which can basically be summed up as The Babadook but dumb, is not the project that will bring his talents into view.
This is a movie that just floats along until it becomes socially irresponsible not to divulge some sort of explanation. Then our hero stumbles upon a file cabinet with annotated photographs and a 30-year-old micro-cassette player that a) still works and b) is set to the precise point where hitting play gives you all your answers. Are the AA batteries possessed with supernatural powers, too? Maybe that’s for the sequel.