by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. David F. Sandberg
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has a boyfriend who is vaguely Eastern European. They have been dating for eight months, but she still treats him like a complete stranger and won’t permit him to shower with her when it is his wont. Her hair graces the top of her chest, and flies every which way before congealing back together in the unlikeliest of weaves. She prefers to take things slowly with men because her father left her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) when she was a girl.
This male figure was replaced by a stepfather who is murdered at his job in a mannequin factory. All these experiences traumatize Sophie and her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who is also Rebecca’s stepbrother. A manifestation of their grief appears to trouble them — a clawed woman who calls herself Diana and appears only in darkness.
Lights Out takes us back to Rebecca’s life as a young girl, where the film suggests that Diana was responsible for her missing father. Her boyfriend tells her that she needs to apologize to everyone involved and completely bails on taking her side. She pacifies him because she fears being abandoned by men or allowing them to become too close to her.
First-time director David F. Sandberg accomplishes marvelous things with light in his debut. The starkness of the day or a fluorescent shining is no impediment to fear in his hands. Darkness is only the absence of this strange, everpresent illumination, a temporary state that makes the fear caused by Diana all the more palpable.
While similar films make us wait the entire running time before unveiling any of their secrets, Rebecca confidently strolls into her mother’s house and discovers a litany of evidence about her mother’s special friend, including an audio tape that seemingly accounts for a murder.
The casting of Palmer makes this run-through of the usual cliches a delight. She is so good at showing a litany of emotions as they cross her face, and her reaction to being trapped in her mother’s house feels definitively natural. “I won’t be sent away again,” Diana tells her, grabbing her by the distinctive hair.
Holding back the realistic feeling of this unique milieu is Maria Bello’s “acting.” How she ever got cast in any project, let alone something like this baffles me. Her job is simply to pretend to be an unhinged, unsafe mother, and yet she plays this so completely frantic and overdone she drags the tone down to her level whenever she is onscreen. Her only real virtue as a performer is her uncanny resemblance to Palmer.
In the last third of the film Teresa Palmer’s face is mostly ensconced in blacklight, making her look even more expressive than she normally does. At just eighty-one minutes, Lights Out feels like a short extended past its admittedly thin premise, but there is something to be said for not remaining in a dark room a minute more than you really have to.
Lights Out begins in a mannequin factory, where Sandberg hints at the basic themes that follow in the film. Except for the child, who is unable to assume any kind of parallel form, every individual in Lights Out is engaged in a form of dress-up which perpetuates their hiding. Without admitting their own faults and problems, they are vulnerable to the darkness.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.