Lights Out has a pretty scary image and takes it about as far as it can go. Then it keeps going, stretching itself thin before collapsing into end credits. The idea is this: a mean, grabby, violent ghost is lurking in the dark, and disappears in the light. The opening sequence is effective, as two characters at the end of a long workday are locking up a mannequin warehouse (red flag number one, for all the shadowy figures lurking in the frame). When the lights go out, a haunting silhouette appears in the doorway, backlit by other rooms’ ambient glow. They flip the switch. Nothing’s there. Flip it again. There’s the ghost again, getting closer. Spooky stuff. Unfortunately, that’s really the only trick up the movie’s sleeve, although screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5) tries, but only sometimes succeeds, to keep the deployment of the image fresh throughout. The problem is inherent in making a 3-minute short into a feature-length affair, running out of novelty far sooner than an 80-minute horror movie should.
But at least director David F. Sandberg, adapting his own short, is trying, investing the thin story with something like psychological interest. One should never attend a horror movie expecting a sensitive treatment of mental illness. But here it makes for an interesting thread right up until the genre dictates send it straight into troubling conclusions. That makes it more disappointing in the end, but, hey, it was worth a try. It turns out the ghost who appears when the lights go out – one with a prerequisite tortured-youngster-in-a-tragic-asylum backstory – is psychically linked to a mother (Maria Bello) gone off her meds. The supernatural creature is a manifestation of her breakdown. We learn it happened before, after her first husband disappeared when her now-grown daughter (Teresa Palmer) was 10 years old. She managed to get it under control then. But now, after the death of her second husband (Billy Burke), it’s back, conjoined with her depression and other nameless psychological issues going untreated welcoming this specter into the home she shares with her young son (Gabriel Bateman).
What’s fascinating underneath the pro forma ghost story elements is the understanding of the ways one person’s psychosis can become a shared state of madness for the whole family. They’re bound together inside the delusion, if not in sharing the particulars then at least in understanding the language of its parameters. When the boy turns up at his step-sister’s apartment, exhausted from sleepless nights hiding as the thing goes bump in the dark, she knows all too well what’s wrong. It doesn’t take long until she and her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) argue with the mother about what’s best for the boy, and ultimately decide to help rid their family of this terrible curse with or without her help. The mother’s pills have gone untaken, and the ghost is getting territorial, trying its best to scare off or, failing that, kill anyone who would stop this woman’s mental illness, and thus stop allowing the spirit’s malevolence to exist.
That’s a neat-enough way to pad out the runtime. As it goes along the ghost appears and disappears under the dim glow of all of the lights (all of the lights): cop lights, flash lights, spotlights, strobe lights, street lights, candlelight, black light, neon light. All of the lights. You get the picture. There’s scraping and growling and lunging, often circling in the surround speakers to give an immersive sense of creepiness until the being appears with a jolt, its outline darkening the edges of a pale beam, then shrinking in a strong blast of bright. It’s clever, especially when the ghost starts picking objects or people up and then, upon disappearing, drops them instantaneously. But the filmmakers don’t play with the concept enough, eventually devolving into the sort of dumb horror movie behavior (don’t open that! don’t split up! don’t turn your back on that! don’t leave him alone! don’t go in the basement!) that contributes to diminishing the scares’ potency.
Still, it’s enjoyably surfacy and small enough to nearly work, carried along by well-lit (naturally) frames and a cast committing to the emotional intensity of children watching their mother’s vulnerable state deteriorate. Both are enhanced in spookiness by all those opportunities for characters to look scared while holding light sources under their faces like they’re telling ghost stories around the campfire. But by the end, the movie itself doesn’t seem to know how to conclude, arriving at a truly dispiriting answer to its characters’ problems. It gives up. The method by which the threat is resolved implies that mental illness of a certain severity is essentially incurable, and that the sane members of the family would be better off without her. That’s reductive and insulting, probably not on purpose, but through an inability to figure out any other way to write themselves to a satisfying stopping point. In just about every possible aspect, Lights Out starts intriguing and then runs out of bright ideas well before its end.