Making a horror film must be really challenging – there are so many elements that have to be finessed just right or else the whole thing falls flat. Characters must be likeable, believable and have an engaging back story, the monster needs to be well-designed and terrifying, the performances need to be plausible, the directing taught, the managing of sound and silence evenly paced, and the scenarios free from idiotic behaviour.
Somehow the films that generally manage to achieve this delicate balancing act often have James Wan’s name attached to them – he has variously been involved as writer, director and producer on the Saw (2004-10), Insidious (2010-15) and The Conjuring (2013-16) franchises, and produces on Lights Out.
What’s curious is that though so many contemporary horror movies feature the same elements over and over again (family under siege in home beset by evil spirit), if the elements are all perfect, the formula can be infinitely successful. Lights Out gets it almost all right and goes to show that if you’re a pretty blonde girl, you’ll always find a guy to take care of you, love you and protect you, even if your family history is like something the Manson family dreamed up.
The pretty blonde is gorgeous-but-not-vapid Rebecca (Australian Teresa Palmer) and dreamily swoonsome Paolo-Nutini-hipster-boyfriend Bret (Alexander Dipersia), who you are unlikely not to have fallen in love with by the end of the film if you’re a straight girl or a gay guy. It’s the tenderness, loyalty and devotion Bret has for commitment-phobic Rebecca that is the emotional core of the film. It’s the same kind of warmth and purity you feel between Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren in the Conjuring movies. If something truly terrifying were happening to you, these are the players you would want on your team.
Rebecca’s family history involves her mother’s frequent depressive episodes, an absent father, a sleep-deprived younger brother Martin (earnest-but-not-annoying Gabriel Bateman), and a shadowy interloper called Diana. The mother reminded me a lot of Maria Bello from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) because … well … she is Maria Bello. As mentally-ragged-but-sympathetic mum Sophie, she has been battling demons – psychological and supernatural – all her life, leaving her family struggling with issues of abandonment and loyalty. These are the real monsters of course: depression, psychological illness and the fear of losing your family.
Preying on the family’s weaknesses is our nasty villain, Diana. Part-Mama (Mama, 2013), part-Babadook (The Babadook, 2014), part-Samara (The Ring, 2002), part-Kayako (The Grudge, 2004), part-Bathsheba (The Conjuring, 2013), Diana is so mean ’n’ nasty, I actually started getting really mad at her, which is a good thing, cos it’s that level of emotional reaction every horror movie needs. Diana’s back story also has a touch of the Mamas about it, but that’s not a bad thing, as it’s the back story that lends Lights Out some extra weight.
Pulling together on the side of the forces for good, Rebecca, Sophie, Martin and Bret rarely succumb to SHMB (silly horror movie behaviour) and when they occasionally do (leaving each other alone in rooms in a house inhabited by a homicidal spirit), you can forgive them because they’re generally solid characters. You have to ask yourself whether even you would behave in a totally sensible way when confronted by a situation so extreme.
In the end, Lights Out is a sound rebuttal to that nagging question: is there any point in still watching horror films when you’ve seen it all? Sequel’s already in the pipeline, apparently. Save me a seat!