Sandberg’s original Lights Out short is a terrifying little bite-size horror movie, but I wasn’t sure how a two minute short would translate into a feature length film. Well, pretty darn well, I must say. The movie is, first of all, short and unpretentious; it has a tight eighty minute running time and it never stops moving except to give the bare minimum of back-story to make the movie feel like it has some actual characters in it. They aren’t deep, but they work. Teresa Palmer, in particular, is compelling and creates a real enough character that you care about her. Maria Bello is also quite good. But, look, the star of this movie is Diana, the malevolent spirit at its heart. Diana is a really magnificent creation. I didn’t find this movie particularly scary; it was more of the entertaining, fun horror movie as opposed to the genuinely terrifying or disturbing kind, which is fine. But even though I didn’t find Diana super-scary, I have to admit that she’s a striking and compelling creation. Alicia Vela-Bailey played the character and deserves a lot of credit; so does the designer and Sandberg’s direction is right on point, always finding some new way to utilize the light/dark dynamic of the film to create a compelling image. My favorite: Diana leaping across a room, appearing in the strobe like flashes of gunfire.
The film has a lot wrong with it too. It has no internal consistency in terms of what the deal is with Diana & light. Sometimes, she can stay in the light, but it burns her. Sometimes when lights hit her, she’s just gone, kind of teleported away; there’s a very funny gag involving car headlights in which Diana just vanishes and the guy she had lifted in the air just tumbles to the ground. Other times, the light just seems to hide; she’s still there, still, for instance, leaping through the air at someone, only you can’t see her. More seriously, the film has a really toxic message about mental illness. Well, okay, spoilers.
The film has an initially compelling idea in which the spirit/demon isn’t linked to a particular place or even to a particular person, but rather to a particular mental illness. Diana is very real, but in a strange way she’s only powerful or present when the mother in this film is suffering from mental illness. This is an interesting idea. Until the ending, that is, which posits that the solution is for the woman suffering from depression is to kill herself. I think it might have been a really compelling idea to end with Diana being vanquished by the mother gaining lucidity, as she, very compellingly, seems to be doing as the film progresses, and getting treatment; every day then becomes a day when she has to be conscious of maintaining her treatment in order to stave off Diana who then becomes kind of metaphorical for mental illness. That’s actually quite moving. But the movie argues instead that, you know, sometimes suicide IS the answer. As someone who’s suffered from depression in the past, I really found this to be disturbing and not in a good way. To the degree that I would urge anyone seeking treatment for depression or linked illnesses to avoid this movie. The message that if you shoot yourself, you’ll end your suffering & also make things better for your family is cloaked in fantasy in this film, but it’s still a message I’m not sure we should be sending out into the world.
But it really says something about the quality of the bulk of this film that I’m not furious about that ending. I’m annoyed and troubled, but that’s the kind of ending that gets movies 0 star reviews sometimes. But the first hour and ten of this movie is so damn good, so engrossing and entertaining that I find myself still giving this a more positive review. It’s well-acted, briskly energetic, kind of atmospheric, visually creative & striking and features a genuinely brilliant creature. Just, you know, don’t take it seriously. 3 stars.
tl;dr – great performances & a creative, striking visual style elevate this entertaining thriller; a great monster too, but the treatment of mental illness here shouldn’t be taken seriously. 3 stars.