"Lights Out" Fails To Move Horror Movie Needle

“Lights Out” is coloring book horror, the kind of fright flick where the lines are all in place from previous, better movies. All the filmmakers have to do is fill what’s in between. Their filler of choice? Blasé characters and tired jump scares, all populating a “Nightmare On Elm Street” redux that swaps out dreams for darkness and an iconic villain for an indistinct one. Some of this might thrill the pre-teen set, but it has virtually nothing to offer inveterate horror fans – not even the least demanding among them.

Aussie actress Teresa Palmer’s flawless American accent can’t lift the pic’s dull heroine from the scary movie doldrums. She plays Rebecca, a millennial without a single defining characteristic but for her dysfunctional family. Her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) is a psychotic haunted by a malevolent spirit from her past: a crinkling, shadowy demon who can only be seen in the (near) dark. Her name is Diana, and the more we learn about her backstory, the more uninteresting she becomes. (It’s a lesson that anyone at all familiar with the genre should have learned by now.)

When the same presence begins haunting Rebecca’s young brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), she and her lame metalhead boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) spring into action, if only to help the insomniac boy get some sleep.

The movie’s scares depend almost entirely on its characters repeatedly switching lights on and off, as to allow Diana to sneak up on them and us, each appearance reliably accompanied by a loud, percussive hit. The tactic works in the opening scene (where Rebecca’s stepdad is offed) but quickly wears thin, each would-be jolt more predictable than the last. It’s not until a third act power outage that writer Eric Heisserer and director David Sandberg (who created the short film the project is based on) are forced to get creative with their scares. It’s no coincidence that this is where the movie is at its most effective.

A better film would play with its big sister, little brother dynamic, giving Rebecca more than a teeny-tiny arc that sees her into a marginally more responsible adult by the film’s end. A better film wouldn’t appropriate mental illness as a plot device in service of a dozen tepid scares. But most of all, a better film would play by its own rules. At first, Diana can’t be seen in the light. Then, black light conveniently proves the exception to the rule. Later, light suddenly burns her flesh, undercutting everything that came before.

The picture ultimately hearkens back to the 2000s – a dreadful decade for horror – in both scripting and execution, mistaking atmosphere for theme and dialogue for story. With respect to the cast, their characters are all as creaky as loose floorboards. And since it’s hard to care about them, it’s impossible to care about anything happening around them.

There have been and will be more inept entries into the genre, but “Lights Out” isn’t worth getting out of bed for. It should leave horror fans planted firmly beneath the covers – not out of fear, but out of avoidance.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 22, 2016
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: David F. Sandberg
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content)