Thursday, 11 August 2016

Movie Review: Lights Out (2016)



When going into certain films, I make it a point of (usually) doing my research if it involves looking at previous relevant films. For instance, in preparation for my review of Ice Age 5, I will go back and watch the previous four so I have a better idea of what I’m getting myself into. Is it any surprise that I haven’t gotten to it yet, with that in mind? However, this is an extremely rare occasion where I have already done my background work without even realizing that I had. Last year, when I went to go see It Follows (you know, that film that wasn’t exactly the Oscars), it was preceded by an ad-hoc horror short film festival. Among the titles shown, which ranged from the clever to the supremely strange, was a 3-minute short called Lights Out. I didn’t think much of it at the time, probably because the audience I saw it with at the time hadn’t shut up yet and thought we were in an interactive screening, but apparently someone else did. RatPac-Dune, a production company that seems to be competing with Blumhouse for the most ubiquitous film producers of the era, picked it up and turned it into a full-fledged production. Did this film deserve such treatment, and is it capable of existing beyond its smaller origins? Time to find out. This is Lights Out.


The plot: Sophie (Maria Bello), a mother with two suffering from severe depression, is under the thumb of an entity she calls ‘Diana’, believing it to be her only friend. After the mysterious death of her husband, she has gotten worse than usual and her son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) has become intently afraid of the dark, losing sleep over it. To help Martin get better, his half-sister and Sophie’s daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) takes care of him while their mother gets better. However, it seems that Diana wants to keep Sophie to itself and wants to get rid of the rest of her family.

Ah, Teresa Palmer; have to admit, it’s nice seeing how one of our walking danger lights is doing these days. And it looks like I’ll have to stop referring to her as such, because she is actually really damn good here. As a reclusive family member, a unwilling-to-commit girlfriend, an endearing older sister and just an intelligent woman in general, Palmer passes with flying colours. I seriously hope that this is a sign that she will take on better productions in the future, now that she’s proven that she has the acting talent to do some good. Bateman has her brother is a wee bit forced in his delivery at times, which isn’t helped by how this is a very on-the-nose script as it is, but he still manages to deliver when the scares need him to. Forced or not, this is a genuinely scared kid on screen. Alexander DiPersia is a tad stock and can come across like a bit of character convenience with his relationship to Palmer, but he isn’t irritating to watch for any length of time so I’m willing to give him a pass. Bello knocks it out of the park on this one, far as I’m concerned; while her portrayal of her condition may stick to only one aspect of it, she definitely rings true when it comes to said aspect. Oh, and Billy Burke as her husband is only in the opening scene, and he does fine with the little he’s given.

After the original short definitely showed some promise, it’s nice to see that built upon for the feature-length production. This so easily could have just devolved into near-constant jump scares, but thankfully the filmmakers are a lot smarter than that. Much like the characters, whom show the kind of logic and quick thinking that has sadly been missing from horror films of late. The main gimmick of the ghoul here, that being she disappears in the presence of light, could’ve so easily turned into something that could only survive in a 3-minute short. But this film actually gets pretty crafty with how it uses Diana to cause some scares, not to mention showing off how her powers work. How she is shown is mostly effective, save for near the end where we start seeing her more fully (much like the original short, her design isn’t all that great when you can see the whole thing), and even when she isn’t shown with the sounds of scratching on wood and creaking doors doing wonders for the film’s atmosphere. Also, it’s weird that something as simple as trying to shoot the monster would result in probably one of the cleverest uses of concept I’ve seen in any horror film. As for the jump scares, bear in mind that I’m already someone who can’t stand it when they’re overused… and yet, I’m perfectly fine with how they are here. It’s done just enough to get the jolts in, and the fact that we get extended sequences of Diana shifting in the darkness makes the whole idea a lot easier to digest.

In terms of writing, this film is quite similar to The Babadook from a couple years back, in that the monster is largely a metaphor for a character’s depressive state. There are two main differences with how it is handled though: For one, it is a lot more spelled out here. Like, almost to the point of beating us over the head with its symbolism like a bad art film. This probably isn’t helped by how, like The Babadook, the creature is revealed to be real and this film does one better by making her a ghost of a living person. The second point, and one I’m willing to bet is not a common opinion, is that this is actually more effective than Babadook at portraying the monster as an extension of a person’s psyche. While not having an annoying-as-all-hell child involved helps matters, there’s also how the creature is shown to affect the person involved, that being Sophie. A dark force that can twist your mind into thinking that it is the only thing you need, while trying to push anyone around you away just so you can bask in its anti-glow; have to admit, that’s a pretty apt description for depression. When I said that Maria Bello’s performance rang true, I mean that as someone whom also suffers from clinical depression. While the condition has forced me to gain a certain amount of self-awareness about how fucked up my head is, the thought processes we see Sophie go through are not unlike those that I myself have had during my… lesser moments, let’s say. It's blunt but, much like the works of Ice Cube and Zack De La Rocha, being direct doesn't mean it's ineffective.

And then there’s the ending, and it is here that we get to the big gaping hole of a problem with this piece of work. There things to note here: One, heavy *SPOILER* territory ahead; two, the next few words are going to be among the most personal I’ve ever gotten on this blog, so I apologize in advance if it proves too much for some readers; three, completely disregard anything and everything good I had to say about this film so far. So, it ends with the monster being defeated. How? Well, since Diana is tied directly into Sophie’s mental state and it isn’t willing to let go, Sophie saves the day by ending her own life and shooting herself in the head. Remember back with Ghostbusters, when I felt that the ending was so much of a turnaround that I ended up liking the film overall? Well, this is the exact opposite situation: While the rest of the film is pretty decent, this film is bad to the point negating anything good it had going for it before. Why exactly? Because when it comes to how much I can relate to Sophie’s mental state, that includes thoughts and even attempts at ending my own life. Usually, it comes attached with the wrong-headed idea that I am doing my family and my friends a favour by doing so, because they won’t have to deal with my emotional meltdowns any more. Now, if this film went full-on with Diana as an embodiment of depression, given how we see that Rebecca has done some self-harming in the past, maybe a bit of sequel-baiting about Diana surviving to haunt Rebecca and how suicide isn’t the answer would have helped. But no. Instead, we get the message that the only way to combat this condition and win is to kill yourself so that your loved ones won’t have to suffer anymore. In no uncertain terms, I have nothing but utter contempt and seething hatred for this bullshit; I’ve talked before about films that have misrepresented certain mental conditions, but never have I seen a film be this haphazardly malicious and downright loathsome in its handling of what is actually a pretty delicate matter. And to be clear, this film isn’t subtle in the least about this being about depression, meaning that they wanted to be sympathetic and royally fucked up. There were enough traces of another ending throughout that it so easily could have been resolved another way if the filmmakers put in the effort. Instead, they took the easy way out in more ways than one.

All in all… you know what, fuck objectivity. I could be talking about how, as a horror film, this is pretty decent with some good scares and surprisingly good acting, especially from Teresa Palmer whom I hope keeps up this kind of ability in the future. I’ll even admit that it manages to go against the notion that it was only good as a short film, managing to not only build on its key idea in interesting ways but also attaching a story that carries it through its lean 80-minute run time. But purely on the basis of the ending, one that shows an utter disregard for something that is very personal and serious for me and millions of other people, I’m scrapping all of it. This ending apparently came about through bad test audience reactions, and the original ending was meant to go along the lines of what I proffered above. Now, this could all end up being fixed in the sequel that is already in the works, but I don't care. That film doesn't exist yet and, regardless of what had been changed behind the scenes, this film is still broken in a way I didn't even realize was possible. London Has Fallen was reprehensible in how racist it was, but even that didn't crawl so easily under my skin as this did in all the worst ways. Hell, to go one further, as much as I railed on Vacation last year, it managed to put me in this weird Zen state of consciousness at one point because my brain officially gave up at one point. This, on the other hand? It is the equivalent of a therapist handing you a razor and saying “Do what you have to do.” The only consolation I get is that, thankfully, it’s not just me who sees this dangerous bit of trash for what it is. Some other reviewers may be willing to forgive because of its horror chops, but not I. Fuck this movie and, if you suffer from depression or are prone to suicidal ideation, for the love of everything you hold dear, do not watch it. This film may see death as the only solution, but I will not tolerate it and you shouldn’t either.

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