Review: Lights Out
Quality in film can take any number of forms. Entertainment value, social value and technical merit are all present in our very best films. And in our very worst, they are all conspicuously missing. It is those films that leave you asking "what even is this?"
It takes a certain combination of laziness, arrogance and ignorance to make a film I really hate, but the makers of Lights Out have risen to the occasion in stunning fashion. They made something I did not enjoy, I do not respect and I wish did not exist. Because all of that is true, I will just go ahead and lay out all of its oh, so stupid plot points, so that you can have no lingering curiosity about this nonsense.
The film opens in a factory. Street lights buzz outside and spotlights dot the inside. An employee flips off a light switch and sees a shadowy figure. She flips the light switch on and off as the figure appears and disappears enough times to make her leave the building immediately. Minutes later, we see this figure stalk and kill a man, as we learn this figure can only attack in the dark.
Fast forward to the present and we meet a family. Sophie (played by Maria Bello) and her young son, Martin (played by Gabriel Bateman), live alone now, as it turns out the man killed in the first scene was their husband/father. Trouble starts when Sophie starts talking in the middle of the night and that shadowy figure starts to disturb their house. When Martin can't sleep, his school reaches out to his sister, Rebecca (played by Teresa Palmer), for help.
Rebecca tries to intervene by taking Martin out of the house, but when the shadowy woman still stalks them, she tries to understand why. And this is where any legitimacy this movie had is shredded by its acute inanity. Turns out Sophie was a patient in a mental institution as a child. While there, she met Diana, who had an aversion to light that the hospital sought to treat with exposure to light. Diana died, but now she is back in the form of this shadowy figure--stalking this family in an effort to stay close to her best friend, Sophie.
The movie ends with an idiotic crescendo where Sophie kills herself, because the film explains that Diana is a product of Sophie's mental illness and if she is dead, then there is no more danger. It is difficult to think of a more wrongheaded notion, but that's what they went with.
As I watched this film draw to a close, I sat there and wondered what would happen if Black people were demonized in the way that those with mental illness are. What would happen if it were a common trope in horror films for the 'danger' to be dark skin or some other racially insensitive feature? Obviously we would react differently to that, but I am not exactly sure why. Our repeated reliance on mental illness to create fear only serves to stigmatize real people with real issues. And that says nothing of the fact that it has just been done so many times at this point.
Mental illness used to create fear does not feel fresh or original anymore, but that is not the end of the film's sins. It also sought to substitute lazy shortcuts for careful exposition. When the filmmakers felt the audience needed information quickly, they would rush in with some forced montage explaining the backstory. Think--"okay, I have been doing some research and I just found this 45 second monologue that will tell you everything you need to know." And this was not due to a lack of time, as the film already feels sparse in its 81-minute shell. Everything about it screamed that they didn't really care very much--neither about the story or their unfortunate audience.
All of these critiques say nothing of the weird metaphysical rules for this being. It can only be heard when it is in the dark too? Black lights don't count as light? Sophie killing herself gets rid of it, but Sophie being unconscious doesn't? Like I said, what even is this? Horror films create these little universes and they rely on the audience caring about learning the rules. But in order for that to be the case, the filmmakers have to show they care first. Nothing about this experience suggest that they do. This would have been better off remain the 3-minute short film it was borne out of.
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