Like the most enjoyable horror movies, Lights Out is almost a physical experience, carrying viewers from stress and terror to even some tension-breaking hilarity. Most of the ride in this new James Wan production is due to the ingenious mechanics of the movie’s monster, a demonic woman named Diana who can’t stand light. As a result of this photo-sensitivity, Diana lingers in the shadows, both physical and mental, waiting to strike. Her targets are the remnants of a family, scarred by trauma and scattered to the wind. Sophie (Maria Bello) is a beleaguered mother wrestling with mental illness. Her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) trying to get through childhood with no reliable parental figure. Sophie’s adult daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), has recently left home after a disagreement with her mom, and Rebecca’s well-meaning rock star boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), wants to take their relationship to the next level but keeps getting buttressed by her lingering trust issues.
The movie starts off with a horrific bang, but then eases into the story by filling most of the first act with background on these characters. Viewers learn lots through quirky characteristics, like Bret’s attempts to leave clothes at Rebecca’s apartment, or Rebecca’s own love of heavy metal skeleton posters. Palmer and DiPersia especially do a good job of infusing their characters (mostly there to suffer on screen for us) with real vivacity.
The rest of the movie, however, involves a lot of screaming, both from the characters and viewers, thanks to Diana. For most of the running time, viewers only see her as a jagged silhouette rising when a light is turned off, all creaky joints and claw-like fingernails. The mythological concept is both simple to understand and easy to build up, as the characters discover the effects of different types of light and come up with strategies for survival using household appliances. Some scenes even resemble what McGyver might do if he had to face a shadow demon armed only with a hand-pump flashlight and some duct tape.
With sheer scariness no longer being enough for the savvy horror movie watcher, Lights Out attempts to add another level of resonance to Diana’s terror, but executes it so poorly it proves to be the movie’s undoing. Like The Babadook, Lights Out tries to blur the lines between monstrosity and mental illness. Without spoiling anything, Diana’s supervillain origin involves Sophie’s history at a mental institution. There’s some obviously fake scientific explanation offered for Diana’s weird powers, but it mostly just seems like an excuse to invoke the eerie visuals of old asylums (which, for the record, are still very creepy). The backstory is just vague enough that it’s possible to assume Diana might only exist as an extension of Sophie’s mental illness. Such tension helps fulfill one of horror’s greatest purposes: to expunge and visualize the things normal society doesn’t talk about. Usually that means young people having sex, but evoking mental illness is just as horrifically effective. It both builds tension (whom can Martin trust if his only parent might also be the source of the monster under his bed?) and confronts the way our society too often demonizes mental health.
Unfortunately, the movie’s ending does not do this storyline justice. Suffice it to say that the mental health aspect of the story is not treated with respect, but rather as a simple plot device, to be used and discarded like so many shattered lightbulbs. In a culture that already doesn’t do well by victims of mental illness, it’s disappointing, and takes a lot of wind from Lights Out‘s sails. It’s easy to not want to think hard about horror movies, to just let them wash over you like the cathartic experiences they are. But this movie purposely inspires viewers to think about serious topics, and then disregards the consequences of doing so, undermining the whole enterprise. The final physical sensation is not terror or relief, but disgust. B-