Lights Out was originally a three-minute viral short that is, in the professional parlance, frightening as fuck. It centered on a nameless woman who spots a dark silhouette at the end of her hallway after she flicks the lights off on her way to bed. When they’re back on, there’s nothing there. When she turns them off again, the figure reappears, suddenly closer, sending her scurrying off to the questionable sanctuary under her covers. It’s perfect in the way that only something so brief can be — no explanations, no context, just a funny-freaky encapsulation of what it’s like to scare yourself silly in the midst of surroundings that are totally mundane and familiar in the light of day.
As a full-length movie, Lights Out — the feature debut of Swedish writer-director David F. Sandberg, the man behind the short — has had to grow a larger plot with additional characters, who need not just names but also histories. The apparition now has both: Diana's lurid backstory involves a mental institution, severe photosensitivity, and possible psychic powers, none of which make her the slightest bit more scary than the mysterious baddie in the original. But at 81 minutes, unfolding in a handful of key locations, and opting for practical effects and clever framing over computer-generated imagery (stuntwoman Alicia Vela-Bailey sells the hell out of Diana’s my-ghost-joints-are-funky movements), Lights Out is still lean and concentrated, and it benefits from that spareness, this time in a different way.
If the wraith in the Lights Out short is a symbol of the inexorable, irrational pull of nighttime terrors, the one in the full-length movie is more of a sloppy but hard to shake stand-in for mental illness. At times, the film comes across like a less artful, don’t-ask-too-many-questions take on The Babadook from the perspective of the children: punky twentysomething commitmentphobe Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who left home as soon as she could, and her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who still lives with their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie has gone off her meds, draped the house in blackout curtains, and started talking to shadowy corners. Martin grows so terrified and sleep-deprived that, at the sight of him, Rebecca allows herself to get sucked back into the troubled home life she'd eagerly fled.
From the ominous opening encounter that leaves Martin without his dad, there’s no question that Diana is real and deadly. But she’s also directly linked to Sophie’s least stable periods, as if she were a physical manifestation of Sophie’s downswings, dark days made literal. Sophie is the focus of Diana’s attention, but we see her through her kids, who are torn between wanting to pry their mother free from Diana’s grip and separating from her to save themselves. It works as pop-horror symbolism for having a loved one with all-consuming mental health issues, until an ending that settles on an abrupt and needlessly bleak solution.
Oh well — at least that only-seen-in-the-dark concept is still hair-raisingly effective, even in moments when it’s played for camp (like when Rebecca’s dreamy doofus of a boyfriend scrambles to escape a supernatural encounter). A scene in which Diana shows up in Rebecca's apartment between blinks from the light of the neon sign outside the window is a skin-crawlingly good miniature set piece. It feels just enough like a bad dream to possibly be one, this dark figure crouched in the doorway, scratching at the floor. It's simple, but that's why it works so well, summoning the sickening feeling of being unable to decide if it’s better to keep an eye on something potentially terrifying or to look elsewhere and just hope it goes away.
Sometimes a dark figure in a dark room is all you need.