Few horror films are as insistent about the trauma mental illness inflicts on families as Lights Out, and still fewer are so insensitive about it. Director David F. Sandberg’s debut feature begins with an extended version of his 2013 viral short film of the same name, establishing a deviously simple premise: An undead demon is on the prowl, its clawed, scraggly form capable of only being seen in the dark, and when the electricity jolts on or a motion sensor deactivates, the monster inches closer to its prey. After claiming an overworked businessman, Paul (Billy Burke), the ghost lurks around his surviving family, who prove to be a beleaguered and embittered lot.
Twentysomething goth Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) lives alone in downtown L.A., where she resists committing to her rocker boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), in the red glow of a tattoo parlor’s ominously blinking sign. She’s drawn back into her dysfunctional family to come to the aid of her young brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who’s suffering in school due to lack of sleep. Like all children in producer James Wan’s cinematic universe, the sunset turns Martin’s home into a hothouse of eerie scratching, manic behavior, and doors left forebodingly ajar. Though neither child seems to even briefly doubt the existence of a monster in the family home, both know who’s to blame: their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who’s clinically depressed and likely off her meds once again. “Remember to take your vitamins, Mommy,” Martin says before he leaves the family home to stay with Rebecca.
The film’s torpid first half is heavy on exposition, but more larded with inchoate motives and emotions. There’s a lengthy digression about the role of Child Protective Services, and Rebecca does enough crate-digging to determine that the monster haunting her family is Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), an old friend of Sophie’s from her days in a psychiatric institution who, even in undead form, still has dangerous attachment issues. After early scenes that dwell on her hard-earned fear of commitment and responsibility, Rebecca assumes the role of matriarch, attempting to obtain guardianship of Martin as a harried Sophie becomes increasingly determined to make Diana a member of the family. The film manages to hit the notes of boilerplate family-in-peril horror while steering well clear of any suggestion that a shred of empathy might help resolve Sophie’s mental illness or Martin’s ongoing trauma.
In the midst of the film’s bewildering emotional logic, Sandberg makes a few smart decisions. He uses otherwise rote haunting scenes in order to visually explain the quirks of Diana’s wrath, allowing us to understand the rules of the game before his characters do. The finer points of those rules are never entirely clear (Diana attacks from dark corners of otherwise bright rooms, and at one point her screechings can be heard originating from a well-lit hallway), but Sandberg is a shrewd student of audience engagement, saving the deployment of one glaringly obvious light source for a hugely effective mid-film chase scene. Without missing a beat, he busts out another that caused the crowd I saw the film with to burst into a spontaneous ovation.
Lights Out doesn’t deliver on the goodwill created by that sequence. Like The Conjuring films, this one devotes an inordinate amount of its scant running time to shots of doorknobs in varying states of distress, and too many of the suspense scenes involve characters saying, “I’ll be right back,” without a semblance of self-awareness before they enter dark rooms. Even worse, the film resolves its running interest in mental illness with an act of emotional terrorism that’s at once offensively lazy and massively counterproductive. In the spirit of The Babadook, whose children’s-book villain Diana somewhat resembles, Lights Out argues that psychotic disorders can put families through harrowing rifts, but Sandberg’s film is too thin and gimmicky to consider the idea that a family is something worth fighting to maintain.