Friday 9 December 2016

On DVD: "Lights Out"

If Hollywood is to devote its entire summer roster to bombastic B-movies, it may be preferable that they turn out like Lights Out: brisk, no-nonsense fare that gets us in and out of the multiplex, more than passably entertained, in just under two hours. Although an extension of director David F. Sandberg's much-admired 2013 short of the same name, the feature-length Lights feels at this moment in time like an attempt to re-engineer The Babadook as a straightforward quiet-quiet-loud horror flick capable of exploiting even the average Dolby surround system. The mystery here is why several members of the same family find themselves pestered by a black-clad, long-taloned figure who only appears after the illumination in any given room has been snuffed out. It quickly does for clan patriarch Billy Burke - K-Stew's dad in the Twilight series, and thus not a guy easily flustered - in a prologue set within a textiles factory; it then comes after stepsiblings Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman, who's taken to clutching candles and sleeping with a torch. That the pair's mom (Maria Bello) is a pill-popping depressive gives some indication of what might be eating everybody - but hold your horses, amateur Freuds, it's not quite as simple as that.

Granted, the script - by the increasingly notable Eric Heisserer (who did Arrival, where he similarly converted scant source material into something more substantial) - takes the occasional shortcut in getting us from A to B, although this at least ensures Lights Out never approaches the absurd running time of The Conjuring 2: at one point, Palmer stumbles across another of the horror cycle's dusty expositional boxes, containing all the useful plot information a final girl might require. Yet some appreciably knotty complications are established and unpicked over the course of these eighty-odd minutes: mom and daughter are barely speaking after a fraught custody battle, which makes teaming up to see off the spectre tricky, and the standoffish Palmer is busy enough already trying to get her head around the idea of a puppyish fuckbuddy who wants to turn himself into a boyfriend. 

The more mechanical business - the frantic taping down of light switches and replacing of bulbs - is all in good working order and pretty fun going; it's a neat development that the "monster" (who comes to be referred to as Diana) can operate in brightly lit rooms, so long as there's a shadow of some sort (under a bed, say) into which she can retreat - and the gathered effects squad make very striking an antagonist who mostly exists in silhouette form. Sandberg's also slightly more attentive to his actors than is the norm in this field: casting Palmer as the fruit of Bello's loins feels instinctively right, and this may be the first film to make full narrative use of the dark crescents under the younger actress's eyes. (She does look as though she's being kept awake at night.) Among the many demographics Sandberg is likely to send home contented would be the Val Lewton fan club - but this is one of those modern horrors that may actually play better as sleepover fare on DVD, where it can be watched in near-total darkness, than it would in a multiplex screen, where some of the overhead lights have to be kept on for health-and-safety reasons.

Lights Out is available on DVD from Monday. 

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