Friday, September 16, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Lights Out

Welp, Summer Movie Season 2016 is officially over, as evidenced by the limp offerings at the cineplex this past weekend. The theaters were packed full of stale leftovers, and unless you're six years old and want to see Pete's Dragon or ninety and can't wait to see the Ben Hur remake, it was slim pickings indeed. I finally had to settle on Lights Out, a PG-13 "horror" film which actually premiered way back in July (!).

Lights Out was written by Eric Heisserer and directed by David F. Sandberg.

Heisserer wrote The Nightmare On Elm Street remake (meh), Final Destination 5 (OK), The Thing remake (blech) and Hours (?), which tells you everything you need to know about his talent level. He also wrote the upcoming Arrival, which actually looks pretty good, although my interest level just went down quite a few notches now after finding out he's involved with it.

Sandberg previously wrote and directed several short films. This is his first time directing a major (well, sort of) Hollywood movie.

One of the shorts Sandberg directed was also called Lights Out, and, as you might expect, served as the inspiration for this film. The two and a half minute short features a woman (played by Sandberg's wife Lotta Losten) who's terrorized by a ghostly figure that can only be seen in the dark.

The short was submitted to a film festival, but unfortunately didn't win. It did go viral though (as the kids say) and you've probably seen a piece of it online. Sandberg was contacted by numerous producers who all wanted to turn the short into a feature-length film. Sandberg wrote a treatment that expanded the short, which impressed James Wan (the man responsible for putting most of the Saw films on the screen), and he agreed to produce it.

Does the idea of a dark, violent, ghostly figure who manifests itself through a mentally unbalanced woman seem like an obvious metaphor for depression? Well, that's not just a coincidence. In an interview, Sandberg admitted that he's suffered from depression for years, and the Diana character is most definitely meant to be a physical representation of the condition.

That's kind of a cool idea, I suppose, until you realize that— SPOILERS!— one of the characters decides the only way to rid herself of Diana (and "cure" her of her depression) is not with medication or therapy, but by shooting herself in the head (!). Yikes! That's probably not the best message to send out to the clinically depressed. I'm hoping this plot resolution was unintentional, and Sandberg wasn't deliberately encouraging people to kill themselves.

Horror movies tend to make a lot of money, since they're generally cheap to film. Lights Out is no exception. Shot for a mere $5 million, so far it's grossed over $66 million. So you know what that means! Look for Lights Out 2: Even Lightier in theaters next fall.

Best of all, Lights Out clocks in at a brief 81 minutes, so it won't take up too much of your time.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Paul (played very briefly by Billy Burke of Twilight fame) is the owner of a mannequin warehouse (?). His employee Esther (played by Lotta Losten, wife of director David Sandberg) is closing up for the night, and sees the ghastly figure of a woman whenever she switches off the lights. The figure disappears the second the lights are turned on. Esther tries to tell Paul about the ghost, but he blows off her warning and she leaves. 

Paul then hears noises coming from the warehouse. He goes to investigate and see the ghostly woman. He runs back to the office and switches on all the lights. Unfortunately the lights start flickering and go out. Paul's dragged into the dark and killed by the ghostly woman. That'll teach him to ignore someone when they tell him there's a ghost in the warehouse!

Paul's death causes his widow Sophie (played by Maria Bello), who suffers from chronic depression, to take a turn for the worse. She stops taking her meds and begins talking to a seemingly imaginary friend. Martin, Sophie's ten year old son, hears her talking with someone late at night. When he gets up to investigate, he sees she's talking to a ghostly figure (the same one that killed Paul, although Martin doesn't know that). Quite rightly, he runs to his room and spends the night with his light on, terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

When Martin begins falling asleep in class, the school tries to reach Sophie, but she's too out of it to answer. They then call Rebecca, Martin's rebellious half-sister. Rebecca and her friend-zoned boyfriend Bret pick up Martin at school and take him to Sophie's house. When Rebecca sees Sophie's off her meds and acting crazy again, she takes Martin back to her apartment.

That night, Rebecca hears a scratching noise, and sees the ghostly figure (who sure gets around) in the doorway. The ghost leaps for her, but Rebecca manages to turn on the light at the last second, causing it to disappear. She sees that the ghost was using her claws to scratch the name "Diana" into her nice hardwood floor. Rebecca recognizes the name from her childhood.

Sophie demands that Martin return home where he belongs. That night, Sophie and Martin have a movie night, and things seem back to normal. But then Sophie turns out the light, and the ghostly figure appears. Martin freaks out, but Sophie tells him it's OK. The ghost's name is Diana, and she won't hurt him. Just then Diana lunges at Martin, and he turns on the light, which vanishes her. He then runs back to Rebecca's place. 

The next day Rebecca goes to Sophie's house while she's out, and roots through Paul's old home office (which I guess has remained untouched since his death). She just happens to find a box of papers that conveniently infodump Diana's entire backstory to her, as well as the audience. It seems that when Sophie was a girl, she was sent to a mental institution for her depression (right). She met a girl there named Diana, who had a rare condition that made her skin extremely light sensitive (sure). The doctors tried an experimental treatment on Diana, which consisted of exposing her to intense light in order to cure her (sounds reasonable). Unfortunately the treatment made Diana spontaneously combust or something (naturally). Ever since then, Diana has manifested herself through Sophie and her depression, and kills anyone who tries to make her well (makes perfect sense). 

Sophie returns home, and she and Rebecca get into a big argument over Diana. Rebecca and Bret decide to spend the night, mostly to protect Martin. After dark, Rebecca goes to Sophie's room to apologize. Sophie says she wants to start fresh in the morning, and be a good mother again. As she closes the door, she secretly passes Rebecca a note reading, "I need help." Sophie's then slowly pulled back inside the room by Diana's claws.

Rebecca turns on all the lights to keep Diana away. Diana somehow shorts out all the lights, plunging the house into darkness. Rebecca and Martin go into the basement to find the fuse box, and Diana locks them in. D'oh! Outwitted by a ghost! Diana then attacks Bret and drags him outside into the driveway. She's about to kill him, but he uses his key fob to turn on his SUV's lights, making Diana vanish. He gets in his vehicle and speeds off, seemingly abandoning Rebecca and Martin.

Meanwhile Rebecca roots through a pile of junk in the basement and just happens to find a huge black light, complete with a fully charged battery (?). She realizes that the UV light allows them to see Diana without making her disappear. Bret returns with a police car in tow. Two officers investigate the house, and are promptly and gruesomely killed by Diana. While Diana's busy with them, Rebecca and Martin escape and run outside.

Rebecca then goes back to save her mother. Diana corners Rebecca and is about to kill her when Sophie appears, holding a gun (which I guess she got from one of the dead cops?). She says she warned Diana not to harm her children, and now she's going to pay. She says she's Diana's only link to the physical world, and she's going to end her threat once and for all. Sophie then shoots herself in the head, which causes Diana to burst into flame and disappear.

Rebecca, Bret and Martin then huddle in an ambulance and vow to become a family. The lights in the ambulance flicker a bit, but Bret says it's nothing (like he knows anything). The End. Or IS it…?

Thoughts:
Lights Out is a perfect example of the typical watered down PG-13 movie that litters the cineplex these days. You know, the kind that's completely free of blood, gore and especially scares.

Credit where credit's due though— despite its rating, there are a couple of genuinely creepy sequences in it. Especially at the beginning, when the characters in the warehouse keep seeing Diana appear whenever they turn out the lights.

There were also some innovative uses of light as a weapon against Diana. The best scene in the film was when saved himself from Diana by remotely activating his SUV's lights, which caused her to disappear. The fact that UV light had no affect on Diana was interesting as well, and gave the characters a slight advantage against her.

Another cool bit Diana was immune to gunshots. When Rebecca shot at Diana, the muzzle flash caused her to momentarily disappear, allowing the bullet to sail harmlessly through her.

These little touches were all very well thought out and filmed, so it's too bad the rest of the movie was hobbled by its anemic rating. Think how much better the film would have been if it had been rated R!

• At the beginning of the movie, Esther sees a ghostly figure that only appears in the dark. She hurriedly runs into the office to tell Paul about it. He tells her he's on an incredibly important call and doesn't have time for her blathering. Esther looks worried and reluctantly leaves. Paul returns to his call and says, "Welp, I gotta go. Talk to you later" and hangs up. It literally took him less than ten seconds to wrap up this vitally urgent phone call!

Of course if he'd told Esther to wait ten seconds and then wrapped up the call like a normal person, he wouldn't have ended up alone in the warehouse with Diana, and would probably have survived. Script Shenanigans!

• In an interesting twist, the adult in this film is the one with the imaginary friend, instead of the kid.

• Just when we thought Bret had hightailed it out of the film for good, he reappears with a couple of policemen (policepersons?). The cops charge right into Sophie's darkened house, and are instantly killed by Diana.

So how's Rebecca going to explain the two mutilated cop bodies in her mom's house? Did she tell the authorities her mom did it, and then killed herself?

• The original version of the film had a very different ending. In it, Sophie kills herself, seemingly ridding the world of Diana forever. The film then cuts to several months later, and we see that Martin is now depressed over the death of his mother. Diana then reappears and latches herself onto him. Martin, Sophie and Bret then have to kill Diana a second time.

Test audiences hated this ending, mainly because it made Sophie's sacrifice meaningless. So the film was recut, and now ends with the survivors recovering in an ambulance. Because this is a horror film, the lights in the ambulance flicker a bit, the characters exchange nervous glances as they realize evil never truly dies, thus setting up a potential sequel.

Lights Out is a standard PG-13 "horror" film that features a couple of genuinely creepy moments, but on the whole is woefully lacking in scares. The "depression as a deadly, clinging monster" metaphor is interesting, but it takes an appalling turn when the film suggests the solution to mental illness is to kill yourself. There was some actual thought put into the film though, especially when it came to figuring out how to use light as a weapon against Diana, which bumps up the score a bit in my eyes. I give it a B-.

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