David F. Sandberg’s excellent horror flick “Lights Out” is about common fears and universal phobias, about things that go bump in the night and exist only in the dark. Built on a clever premise, the film is executed seamlessly. It’s the best expression of a low-budget horror flick: resourceful and smart, where the most charismatic character is the ghoul itself. Sandberg’s spooky tale is about what happens when the demons in your head come out to play.
Teresa Palmer is Rebecca, a quick-tempered goth chick with commitment issues. The one person to whom she is devoted is her baby brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who has been left to contend with their mercurial mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), in the wake of their father’s (Billy Burke) violent death. This spare film cuts right to the chase to maximize prime scares: Mom’s got a ghostly friend, Diana, from her days as a teen mental patient, and Diana is a jealous, possessive presence. Meddlers in the relationship are dealt with in painful, terrifying ways.
The hook here is that Diana, who was hyper-sensitive to light, only appears in the dark. Using light as their weapon and protection, Rebecca and Martin try to fight the demon that terrorizes their mother and threatens their lives. Ultimately, the ghoul is linked to their mother, and the stranglehold it has on her consciousness is unrelenting.
Palmer’s performance drifts into stereotype at times, as she rolls her eyes like an impatient teen, but that characterization is a fault of the writing, too. We’re supposed to read her as edgy and damaged mostly due to the metal posters on the walls of her apartment, as well as her casual approach to her relationship with her rocker boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia). But what Palmer brings to the film are her large, luminous eyes, which Sandberg highlights with pin lights, and they glow with an otherworldly fire in the beam of a blacklight.
The standout of “Lights Out” is Gabriel Bateman as a boy wise beyond his years, at once terrified and protective of his mother. His earnest bravery is heart-rending and provides the necessary emotional stakes that are missing from the connection between Rebecca and Sophie. The always excellent Bello is unsettling as the tormented woman coming apart at the seams.
Sandberg proves his knack for smart, stripped down, even soulful horror with “Lights Out,” a film that could make you afraid of the dark, if you weren’t already.
Rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content. 1:21. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.