“Are you doing this to help him or hurt her?”
The story behind Lights Out is one many YouTubers aspire towards because it sees Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg evolve from three years of super short online scares to a seat beside contemporary Hollywood horror king James Wan. You could call his three-minute original from 2013 a “proof of concept” as it exists as the introduction of a monster seen only in the dark without any real context or story necessary. In fact, Sandberg’s feature debut pretty much recreates this chilling welcoming—complete with actress Lotta Losten providing the hand that flips the switch—to open his expanded take with the same tense mood before screenwriter Eric Heisserer‘s vision of the creature’s origins begins. The nightmarish figure started as a trickster, a lark. Now she epitomizes malicious intent.
This transition is perfectly suited to the aesthetic promised by Sandberg with his short. The increased budget allows him to utilize the mechanics of this entity—now dubbed Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey)—in much larger set pieces and more elaborately dynamic choreography with his actors. Whereas unknown proximity change was his main tool in 2013, he now lets the ghost interact with characters. She lifts them into the air when shrouded in shadow before disappearing in the light while her victim falls to the floor with a thud. And just as the visual style grows more complex in action, it’s also at times stripped bare to the fundamentals of unseen terror. In pitch black with nothing but a single candle flame, characters can be dragged screaming into the abyss.
It’s a very cool modern-day horror ghoul that lives or dies by how effectively Heisserer crafts his story around it. If you’ve seen the trailers you know that Diana isn’t some spirit attached to the house; this isn’t a “haunting” per se. She’s actually a “friend” of matriarch and resident crazy Sophie (Maria Bello), a warped support group of sorts to protect this woman’s fragile psyche once her husband (Billy Burke) passes away. Sophie is shattered, cracking under the pressure of now losing two husbands, and it’s her son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who suffers the consequences. Lights are dimmed and voices are heard. But while he spies upon a horrifying monster with long fingers ready to pounce, Mom stands there and watches. It’s not the first time.
No, it appears Sophie broke under the pressure of isolation, abandonment, and depression once before when husband number one left. Back then the child caught in the middle was Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), only she was old enough to escape the chaos and seek to build her own life anew. Rebecca dismissed the insane memories of “Diana” as childish dreams manifested by the emotional duress living with someone unfit to raise a child provided. She pushed it to the recesses of her mind and never looked back until Martin’s school calls her out of the blue. The boy’s been falling asleep in class and Rebecca understands his struggle. But when he mentions Diana a switch is flipped. That name can’t be a coincidence. Something is definitely happening.
Heisserer finds success in this backstory because it supplies the unique perspective of turning the entity wreaking havoc into an invited guest. We don’t yet know the extent of its power over Sophie or if Sophie can somehow keep her in check. She’s merely looming over this family, biding time to unleash her rage and acquire that which she seeks. Diana is somehow on our plane of existence, though, roaming the streets and changing locations to ensure Martin and Rebecca remain unsafe. This aspect plays wonderfully into Sandberg’s hands to create new and exciting ways for light to affect her presence. He uses neon signs, candles, black lights, and flickering bulbs. Some hide her, some harm her, and others are merely accessories to be extinguished for added fright.
Where I have issues with the journey is in the explanation of what Diana is. Rather than keep her identity hidden in the darkness, Heisserer tries hard to simultaneously force her into the spirit realm as well as ours. She’s both a real person and figment of Sophie’s imagination. She exists because of Sophie and yet acts in spite of her. This is a confusing clash of ideas allowing for a superb finale (a breathe of fresh air in its sequel-killing closure) hinging on Diana’s psychological construction despite previously showing how the creature can be hurt physically regardless of that psychological connection. Heisserer and Sandberg want to have their cake and eat it too, but doing so creates holes that the captivating style can’t quite hide.
This is in part because of how lean Lights Out is at 80-minutes. There’s no excess—just scares, history, and hope. There’s nothing to distract from the blatant explanations provided via case studies into the past, so we notice when Sandberg’s visuals start to contradict facts we’ve learned. Luckily the film isn’t banking on its story being its strongest attribute. Because while it’s errors can’t be forgiven, they can be ignored long enough to revel in the terror. Diana grows more violent as things progress and the areas of shadow gradually out-number those of light. This monster isn’t playing around as she throws actors down whether integral (Bateman and Palmer), plot-specific (Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret as played by Alexander DiPersia), or fodder for death (two unsuspecting police officers).
So, just because it isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile cinematic experience. Watching Rebecca and Martin get as scared by Diana as they do by the truth of what’s happening as told by their mother is a cool aspect that shouldn’t be dismissed. And the way Sandberg allows everything to be one giant cat and mouse game is more invigorating and suspenseful than the inevitable decision to “fight back.” The goal here is to save Sophie—to survive long enough to get her help. The aggressor is always Diana and this battle is for her very existence so she pulls no punches. It’s ultimately a story about love and sacrifice, doing the impossible no matter the consequences. Can this broken family finally become whole?
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES Caption: TERESA PALMER as Rebecca in New Line Cinema’s horror film “LIGHTS OUT,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES Caption: (L-r) GABRIEL BATEMAN as Martin and MARIA BELLO as Sophie in New Line Cinema’s horror film “LIGHTS OUT,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Photo Credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES Caption: (L-r) GABRIEL BATEMAN as Martin, TERESA PALMER as Rebecca and ALEXANDER DIPERSIA as Bret in New Line Cinema’s horror film “LIGHTS OUT,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.