May include spoilers
A lot of horror clichés have gone out of fashion. No-one wants to see the stupid teenagers picked off by a slasher in a post-Cabin in the Woods world. The found-footage film was novel at first, but quickly wore out its welcome. However, one horror story common today still has potential and that is the horror story about family. For even worse than a monster threatening us is it threatening our loved ones. This year has seen quite a few family-themed horror films of varying quality, from the fantastic The Witch to the dire Other Side of the Door. One of the best horror movies of recent times, 2014’s The Babadook, revolved around a mother and son. Lights Out attempts to explore similar themes to Babadook, but isn’t as successful.
After the mysterious death of her stepfather, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) worries about the mental state of her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) and whether or not her brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is safe around her. Worse, the family is haunted by a shadowy creature calling itself Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), who hides in the darkness and is weakened by light.
Monsters that lurk in the shadows are another common staple in horror that is in no danger of going out of fashion; what child hasn’t wondered what hides in the darkness? Horror is at its best when it leaves things to your own imagination, so Diana is most effective when she is a shadow. Near the end of the film, her appearance does get revealed through blacklight as an unimaginative zombie, and her menace is drained. The Trap Door was more effective with the monster upstairs.
Speaking of cartoons, Diana feels like one with her weakness to light. Monsters that can be destroyed by light feel more like something out of a children’s storybook than an effective horror villain. Orlok from Nosferatu is an exception, of course, but it was only sunlight that destroyed him, and the original Dracula could move about in the light. Still, the film has some fun with the weakness, like when Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) is lifted by Diana only to fall when car headlights come on and when Diana blinks in and out with a neon sign (though the best horror story to utilise a store sign is still the episode of Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible where a dancer had his feet severed by a pair of giant scissors).
As noted before, since the story revolves around a mother’s mental state which is connected to a shadowy demon, it does invite comparisons to The Babadook. Rebecca and her relationship with her mother has a tragic element to it, and the two characters are sympathetic, but it is nowhere near as uncomfortable and unnerving as how Babadook treated a similar story.
Lights Out is a decent horror flick on its own, but it has nothing other films haven’t done better.