In 2013, David F. Sandberg made a terrifying short film (below) with zero scope for expansion. Enter James Wan.
Lights Out opens in a mannequin warehouse, for no reason other than it’s a horror movie. We soon meet Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who finds what can only be described as an ‘exposition box’ and discovers that her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) is being haunted by a ghost called Diana (the Daily Express won’t like that) – once Sophie’s friend with a light-sensitive skin condition, now a light-sensitive demon; not all that scary when there are electric lights everywhere… they should probably have set it somewhere dark, like the countryside or the past.
Although directed by Sandberg, this glossy production-liner has James Wan’s grubby fingerprints all over it: noisy jump scares, CG demons and a story so thin it could be told in three minutes – and originally it was, until Wan turned Sandberg’s playful short into another tepid haunted house movie. It takes ideas, characters and even shots from The Babadook, but Wan just isn’t smart enough to explore the mental illness themes or have his characters go out and buy a torch that you don’t have to wind up by hand. Oh horror movies…
Diana’s motivation is unclear. When Rebecca takes Sophie’s son Martin (Gabriel Bateman – good horror name) to safety, Diana follows them. Why? Surely having Sophie to herself is what she wants. Especially as she’s only manifest when Sophie’s off her medication (metaphor alert). She should therefore want to drive away the people who care about Sophie, rather than follow them when they leave. We also hear a recording of Diana when she was alive, and she talks in a demon voice. Because horror movie.
To be fair, the performances are solid – Bello in particular is better than the material really warrants, and there’s a surprising appearance from comedy’s Andi Osho. But when the strangest thing about a horror film is the presence of a British comedian, there is a problem. As for Rebecca (whose boyfriend is called Bret or Brad or something), she’s a tattoo artist with heavy metal posters on her wall – Hollywood shorthand for being a flawed person. This suggests that Wan either doesn’t understand horror audiences; or (more likely) he’s not making horror films for horror fans, but for idiots.
At just 81 minutes, the film is mercifully short – a happy byproduct of not having a plot. The problem is that Lights Out simply isn’t very bright.