Not only does David Sandberg’s debut film turn on the best horror premise since It Follows, but it turns on a premise so brilliant that it’s hard to believe that it’s never made its way to a horror blockbuster before now. Set in Los Angeles, Lights Out revolves around the relationship between Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), members of a fractured and fragmented family who reconnect after they realise that they are both being visited by a shapeshifting entity called Diana. Nurtured in large part by Rebecca and Martin’s mother Sophie (Maria Bello), Diana has many terrifying qualities, but the most terrifying is that she can’t bear any kind of extremity of light, only existing in darkness, shadow and shade. Most of the action takes place in Rebecca’s sprawling suburban family home, as she and Martin try to piece together Diana’s past, and yet Lights Out is quite different from most suburban horror in that many of the scariest scenes are set during the day, amongst the pockets and repositories of dimness that linger inside during working hours. Whereas most suburban horror is driven by fear of sundown, and the terror of what goes on when other people are sleeping, here it’s the creepiness of the daytime suburban home when nobody is at home that tends to be the driving force behind most of the horror. In that sense, Lights Out offers something like a quintessentially L.A. suburban horror film, with the bright expanses outside rendering the noontide darkness inside all the mort startling and threatening, as Sandberg alternates between brightness and obscurity just a little too rapidly and frequently for our irises to ever quite adjust or adapt themselves to the mise-en-scene.
As that might suggest, that makes for a series of horror tableaux in which the position of light fixtures is crucial – how high up the wall, whether in the same room or the next room, the type of switch – as is the comparative amount of darkness Diana needs to manifest herself, which seems to shrink more and more with each appearance. At first, she seems to need the cover of night, or a pitch-black room, but as she gains power any patch of shadow will suffice – the space under the bed, the area behind a door – just as the pools of darkness themselves become more and more anamorphic and connected with each other, until even the smallest piece of darkness can balloon and expand under Diana’s touch. Suffused with a child’s visceral awareness of the nearest light source – lamp, switch, window – the resultant horror speaks beautifully to a digital milieu in which the distinctions between day and night have been more or less eroded. In their place, more and more of us inhabit a strange world in which day and night have effectively been spatialized as they are in Sandberg’s vision, where in lieu of a diurnal rhythm we are presented with greater and lesser regions of day and night, different arrangements of darkness and light, but never total brightness or total obscurity.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) is forced to fight Diana with only a SmartPhone to protect him as a light source – the perfect symbol for what basically amounts to Elm Street reimagined for a digital era, since while the premise may be redolent of Wes Craven’s vision, Lights Out also serves to remind you that at least the Elm Street teenagers had the daylight hours to regroup and plan for the next nocturnal onslaught. Without those precious hours, there’s very little down time or reprieve from the tension here, with the action simply escalating and the film as a whole moving at a much faster pace than usual. While that makes it unsettling at times, it does mean that Lights Out ends a little abruptly and incompletely – it really needs one more conclusion or a final twist – and still bears the traces of the short film by Sandberg from which it was expanded and developed. Nevertheless, the climactic sequence works beautifully on its own terms, as Rebecca, Martin and Bret aim to “trap” Diana by keeping the house lit all night and forcing her into smaller and smaller pockets of darkness. In a series of meticulously composed tableaux, Sandberg trains them – and us – to a heightened awareness of even the most fleeting and transitory patches of shadow, and I’ve never seen a film that captures the visceral sensitivity and affinity that children have for darkness as eloquently as occurs across this final sequence. By the end, it feels as if the cinematography is responsible for all the physical co-ordinates of the mise-en-scene, just as it is responsible for determining where and where Diana can manifest herself physically – and that in turn turns light into something plastic, sculptural and almost analog, only for Sandberg to dissolve it, time and again, back into the digital flux that is Diana’s true abode.