Adapting short films to feature length can be risky business. What can work effectively in ten minutes is never guaranteed to work over eighty, and sometimes a core idea that was succinctly powerful as a short can feel stretched too thin in feature form. There’s an element of that at play here, as David F. Sandberg’s acclaimed 2013 short Lights Out gets the feature treatment, with Sandberg himself at the helm. This is smarter-than-average multiplex horror, but there’s an element of repetition that is likely to neutralise its impact amongst genre fans.
The film wastes no time in establishing both its demonic antagonist – named, as we learn later, Diana – and her MO, as a man working late at the office (Billy Burke) is terrorised and ultimately murdered by her before the opening titles. A tall, emaciated figure that can only move freely in the dark, her introduction is suitably chilling, and its a reminder of exactly why Lights Out functioned so well as a short. From here, we meet Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, of Warm Bodies fame), the stepdaughter of the murdered man. Living alone and in a tentative relationship with the well-intentioned Bret (Alexander DiPersia), she seems to maintain a measure of distance from her mother (Prisoners‘ Maria Bello) and brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman).
Things are rough in Rebecca’s former family home: Her mother struggles with depression and mental illness, and seemingly converses with an imaginary friend at night. Rebecca reconnects with the family when she discover how badly her brother is affected by the situation, and after she experiences Diana’s wrath firsthand, what follows is Rebecca launching an investigation into the demon’s origins, as its constant emergence under cover of night drives the family to breaking point.
Lights Out brings some individuality to the table in a number of ways. While Rebecca does her own research into who Diana is and how she got here, her mother seems to understand from the beginning, and during one of the film’s more genuinely disturbing sequences, turns all the lights off and holds Martin down to allow him to “meet her friend”. She feels entirely dependent on Diana, as she feels she’s the only one who understands what she’s going through. It’s a smart plot point, and feels textured in a way that is comparable to the admittedly superior Babadook. The family’s fractured relationships are portrayed realistically and relatably, and the central performances (particularly Palmer and Bateman) are solid and grounded.
The problem with Lights Out is a simple one, and possibly one that’s a direct by-product of its origins as a short. The idea of Diana as a demon only capable of moving while the lights are out is effective, but it’s also a little constricting. As a result, while some smart ideas are utilised to wrench the most mileage possible from the conceit, the scares begin to feel a little mechanical after a while – if you cut out the scenes of characters pacing slowly down darkened hallways towards slightly ajar doors, Lights Out might still be a short. Also, as is so often the case, the more you see of the demon, the less scary she becomes, and as you become increasingly desensitised to Diana’s presence, as the film enters its final third it becomes difficult to tell if Lights Out is truly scary, or just loud at unexpected intervals.
With an ending that’s left open to interpretation, there’s no denying that Lights Out has grander ambitions than many horror films to gain this wide of a release. Its scares are too comfortably rooted in “footstep, footstep, footstep, BANG” terrain, but a surprisingly rich central metaphor, convincing performances and some directorial ingenuity mean that this one is still worthy of your attention. While hardened horror fans will have fun with this one, to the uninitiated, Lights Out could well be responsible for some real-life sleepless nights.