What is it with Hollywood’s propensity to use the “evil/vengeful female ghost” archetype? Offhand I can think of Mama, Crimson Peak, both Conjuring movies (technically, the nun in The Conjuring 2 isn’t a ghost, I know), The Woman In Black, The Grudge, etc. There are male ghosts in movies too, but if you bet on the gender of the spirit in any upcoming ghost-themed horror movie, you’d get long odds on male. Such is the case with Lights Out, a movie that promises a lot more than it actually delivers.
I admit, I hadn’t heard many positive comments about this movie when it was released in the summer, but I knew at some point I’d watch it, given that I’m a horror fan, and I also happen to like well done ghost stories. Unfortunately, well done ghost stories are not so easy to find. You can’t really count Ghostbusters in this category, since the ghosts in those movies are better defined as monsters. So yeah, I suppose I’m as particular about the Ghost archetype as I am about the Vampire, though I’m a little more elastic in my definition of a ghost story. Aside: I just finished the audiobook adaptation of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, a book I read last in the mid 80s. Turns out that book is not a ghost story as such after all! Of cinematic ghost stories, I think the one I’ve enjoyed the most in the last few years was Mama, but it degraded terribly in Act 3 with an overabundance of unnecessary CGI. I liked that movie because the ghost was imbued with a certain depth – it wasn’t evil, it did bad things out of maternal instinct – and because the ending was sufficiently downbeat and semi-nihilistic, two qualities I think are essential to successful stories in the horror genre as a whole.
Lights Out, adapted by Eric Heisserer (The Thing remake/prequel, and co writer of The Conjuring 2), and from a short movie by David F Sanberg (who also directs here), is a movie with a premise I really liked: a family are stalked by a seemingly malevolent female spirit who can only cause harm in darkness: in light, she disappears. This makes for a number of scenes where people flick the lights off and on in order to confirm what they are or are not seeing, so I think it’s fair to say that the story was constructed around this visual conceit, and not an actual organically grown story concept. As imagery, it’s great – and also I think it totally works as a horror movie concept. The scenes in which characters actively flip the switches are well done, I thought, but this visual is only one of two that the movie has in its repertoire, and after a few events you quickly get the picture, so that when it happens again, there’s nothing new. The other visual is of the ghost itself – yes, it’s a somewhat familiar image, and heavily borrows from Japanese horror of the kind you’re familiar with, but it’s used to good effect here – the entity is seen as a shadowy black figure with the only discerning feature being its eyes, appearing only here and there as two blinking points of dull light. I liked the visual just fine in the context of this movie. The trouble is, both elements become severely compromised, just like the CGI reveal of Mama. In the case of the spirit appearing only in darkness, in a rush to up the ante in the Act 3 climax, the internal logic of the movie (which worked fine up until this point), is contradicted by it doing things while light is present. There’s some half-assed reason why black light doesn’t affect it, but no reason why someone can be attacked while pointing a flashlight directly at it. Another case of writing for the sake of convenience and not caring about the integrity of your story or characters. In the case of the visual of the entity itself, the black light creates the moment when the movie jumps the shark and shows it’s non-shadowy form, and it ends up just looking like any other crazed female horror character. Good rule of thumb for horror movie writers: don’t give away all of the mystery – it’s where Mama ultimately failed, and its where many horror movies drop the ball.
Lights Out fails in the areas described above, but also in authenticity of character. The characters themselves are not bad – I’ve seen a lot worse in horror movies – but they mostly suffer from a lack of authenticity, and that comes directly from the writing.
I’m a character-driven consumer, and there are two aspects where movies fail to grab me when it comes to character: character development, and developed character. I’d argue that the latter is more important than the former, because while I think that character development is necessary for a more rounded movie viewing experience, it isn’t as necessary as going into a movie where the characters start off as fully realized people. The Ghostbusters remake had virtually nothing in the way of developed characters. Lights Out doesn’t have that problem, but it has a strong authenticity problem with the female lead character, played with a Kristen Stewart vibe by Teresa Palmer, and her would-be boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia). Established early on, these characters wear the trappings of edgy rocker types, but it only comes off as phony. She lives above a tattoo parlor in an apartment with Avenged Sevenfold posters, and he comes complete with full leather apparel. Yet at no time do either of these characters feel as if they belong where the writer has put them. They both come across as those people you know who are into everything as soon it becomes popular – shallow and phony. I found it distracting and amateurishly done. The boyfriend also has a bigger credibility issue – it’s appropriate in context when the three related characters buy into the supernatural goings on, but the boyfriend character appears to simply accept everything at face value, no questions asked, when a more interesting choice would have been to make him the audience substitute who needs to be actively convinced of the reality of the situation. Even the character of the entity itself is underdeveloped. I still don’t really see what its motivation was. It seems as the story could have unfolded with the entity and the living quite content to live together in relative peace, but the threatening behavior it exhibits seems mostly pointless, and purely plot driven.
What works against the movie, enhancing these problems, is the running time. At 80 minutes, the movie feels much too short for the story it’s trying to tell. The result is a mostly underdeveloped story where important reveals are done via talking head exposition and a silly scene in Act 3 where the entity, for no real contextual reason, has written some choice revealing phrases on a basement wall, picked out conveniently by the black light. Like most recent horror movies that don’t go for the jugular, the entire neat premise is undone by what can only be described as mediocre writing talent coupled with a by-the-numbers, generically flat directorial style, leaving the movie to stand or fall on the handful of creepy visuals it serves up.