When I saw that David Sandberg’s amazing short was going to be made into a full-length movie, I was wary, especially since the trailers underwhelmed. But horror trailers often do, and the same director of the short would direct the full-length. I heard mixed reviews from friends, but as easy an audience as I am, I thought I’d give it a try.
I’ll start out by saying that the original short film is a hundred times better. WATCH IT. It accomplishes more in two minutes and thirty seconds than the full-length accomplishes in eighty minutes.
The film shares a lot of beats with another short-to-full-length movie that wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be—MAMA (which I’ve grown to like much better as magical realism rather than horror)—but it tries more to compare itself to THE BABADOOK (also short-to-full-length), with its dark, Nosferatu-fingered nemesis and mental illness analogies. However, everywhere BABADOOK succeeds, LIGHTS OUT sadly fails, suffering all the more from the comparison. Maria Bello and especially Billy Burke were poorly used in a movie with such uncertain footing and logic potholes. All actors did their best, but the material proved too shallow and on-the-nose for them to do much.
Let’s begin with the logic potholes: If there’s one thing that writers of magic learn, it’s that you can make up your rules, but there still have to be rules. There has to be an internal logic to the supernatural, or else you’re cheating. There were plenty of problems with the logic to Diana’s character. If she was a manifestation of depression, why introduce us to her life prior to the mental institution to challenge that? SPOILER Given that Diana’s father killing himself didn’t remove Diana’s influence, was it the fact she was a ghost that allowed it to work this time? Which makes no sense whatsoever, since she’s dead and even more likely to go on attaching to people? And if she wasn’t dead and just transfigured, that still doesn’t explain why Maria Bello’s Sophie could shoot herself and destroy Diana in the process when it didn’t work for Diana’s father.
The movie had no clue as to whether Diana was a physical being who couldn’t exist in the light, which hurt her, and could move fast enough to avoid it or whether she was an apparition who disappeared in the light. She was one, then the other, and it just didn’t work. Figure out your rules, people, and work from there.
The best scene in the movie was the opening one, which most closely resembled the original short, and of course it borrowed the original actress, which was a nice nod, plus Billy Burke. After his unfortunate encounter with Diana, the movie deteriorates from there.
We’re introduced to supposedly-wayward-girl Becca and her boy-toy-who-wants-more boyfriend Lucas, plus young-boy-taking-on-too-much-as-child-of-mentally-ill-mother Martin. We don’t get much more than those hyphenations, unfortunately, and while Teresa Palmer tries so hard to play disaffected, troubled teen sister, Jessica Chastain did it much better as an adult in MAMA. The movie rests on Palmer’s back, but that’s not quite sound enough a foundation.
Which brings us to the mental illness analogy, where LIGHTS OUT tries to make lightning strike twice after the resounding success of THE BABADOOK. In both cases, the comparison is at time heavy-handed, but the emotional resonance of THE BABADOOK makes it work whether the analogy is obvious or subtle. LIGHTS OUT works best when the analogy is casual, but the areas where it’s heavy-handed (“Have you been taking your meds?”—words every single person suffering with mental illness absolutely hates) establish the horror mythology as a direct comparison. That left the movie open to explore potentially amazing horror/mental illness analogies, but it made huge missteps and came to outright terrible conclusions.
There were suggestions that our wayward-girl Becca saw and suffered under Diana in her youth, the way that children of people with mental illness can be tormented by their parent’s disease. And it can lead to children of those with mental illness abandoning their parents out of resentment and for their own safety. But while THE BABADOOK aptly made a comparison with depression that shifts into the psychotic, LIGHTS OUT suggests that Sophie’s bipolar or depression led to SPOILER the death of her husbands, which is troubling on its own, especially as a parenthetical. But when Sophie kills herself in order to save her children from Diana, that was downright irresponsible, suggesting that the only way to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from the ravages of mental illness is truly suicide—the way many people suffering already feel. And as I mentioned above, that logic doesn’t even work from the supernatural rules perspective.
There were several ways this movie would have worked much better from a storytelling angle that wouldn’t have been so effing insulting to people with mental illness, and they would have solved the internal logic issues as well. Basically, all Sandberg would have had to do was choose between whether Diana was a human oddity turned haunt or whether she was never human to begin with—angles that allowed MAMA and THE BABADOOK to work where LIGHTS OUT didn’t.
i. Diana as demonic/nonhuman entity: If we hadn’t focused so much on what Diana is and where she came from, she could have simply been a mysterious, malevolent haunt. The only explanation needed would have been that she was there and how to deal with her rather than inadequately trying to explain and humanize her.
Instead of being another inmate at the psych ward who attached to Sophie, with her own backstory and reason for being there, Diana could have just been something that appeared in Sophie’s life before or during the stay at the ward, a parasite that latched onto a tasty host in an ideal hunting ground. The doctors could have believed her to be a dissociative identity or hallucination, but a picture of Sophie at the time could have shown apparitions (i.e. the ghost lady in INSIDIOUS, the shine in THE SIXTH SENSE). And this haunting follows Sophie throughout her life but weakens from medication use. Her presence in Sophie’s house would have to feel less human (with less human motivations), less visible, as with THE BABADOOK.
Depression can truly feel like a demon on your back, like a form of possession. If LIGHTS OUT had shown that aspect of it the way that THE BABADOOK did, it might have worked better.
ii. Diana as a malevolent/pathetic human ghost: This is something that MAMA did well—and oddly enough, so did the American remake of THE RING. The investigation into Diana’s past with Sophie could have led to more concrete answers, more of a sense of Diana’s humanity—perhaps giving more than a passing nod to Diana’s father and her effect on other people in her life. In THE RING, we saw how living Samara poisoned everything around her, right down to the island she lived on. The viewer was deeply unsettled both by both the girl’s effect and by the antagonism toward a defenseless child. Diana’s presence would have to feel more human, with more human motivations.
One of the aspects of MAMA that sticks with me is that MAMA really was a good mother to those children while they were in her care. The children showed love and affection with her, with the smallest girl happily playing with her.
In LIGHTS OUT, instead of the demon possession of depression, we could have seen what Diana did for Sophie. Once you’re in the midst of a deep depressive episode, there can be a kind of comfort in it even while it rips you apart. It’s familiar. It’s dark and looming and embraces you in its cocoon. Artists have captured this tension with terrifying demon-like creatures offering dark comfort that the world does not—because your depression understands you, while the rest of the world just wants you to go away or spontaneously get better. (Have a listen to Delain’s “Chrysalis – The Last Breath” for a good exmaple of this.) It’s best described by that quote: “I used to wrestle with my inner demons. Now we just snuggle.”
Sophie continually asserts through LIGHTS OUT that Diana doesn’t know any better, that she’s just lonely. We could have seen a bit more of that dynamic, the symbiotic relationship that Diana could have had with Sophie rather than just the parasitic. We could have seen Diana’s face; we could have had more pity for her.
There are two other ways I think LIGHTS OUT could have been improved that have nothing to do with the problematic aspects of Diana.
i. Mental illness is often passed down genetically. There was a suggestion that Becca and Martin’s experience of Diana could have been their own suffering rather than their mother’s. But given that Becca didn’t have a therapist or take pills yet managed to escape from Diana, I feel like Sandberg missed an opportunity, especially since Becca would have been a perfect age for mental illness to really proceed screwing up her life. Wayward she might have been, but she seemed to know her own mind and enjoy herself in her little room above the tattoo parlor.
ii. In my opinion, the solution to the movie giving such an irresponsible message about SPOILER suicide is not letting Diana die with the gunshot. She’s an undead parasite. When her host dies, she has to find another, but she won’t die. If we wanted to connect it to the last suggestion, we could have Diana latch onto Becca or Martin, not to destroy them but to wear them down like she did Sophie.
In conclusion: LIGHTS OUT disappoints on many levels because it doesn’t commit to one idea or another, and the ones it tries to run with both don’t make sense and are incredibly troubling, and not in a horror movie way. The poor script and unfocused vision make it impossible for me to recommend.
Instead, check out MAMA (as magical realism rather than horror—del Toro tends toward MR as a genre, but the US doesn’t really acknowledge MR as a separate genre from fantasy or horror and often promotes it incorrectly as horror) or THE BABADOOK for movies far more satisfying, consistent, and intense.