Horror films, by necessity, live in a world where what’s unseen is often scarier than what’s visible. The plucky and well-acted, if not always shiver-inducing, “Lights Out” — from first-time feature director David F. Sandberg, building on his popular viral short, and fright impresario James Wan (“The Conjuring 2”) — works a clever gimmick that seems tailor-made for the visual particulars of movies: a terrorizing figure one can only detect when there’s no illumination.
That really means cagey indirect light, the kind that’s turned heaps of clothes into imagined monsters since kids were first tucked into beds. That the film occasionally succumbs to certain rudimentary hallmarks of industrial studio horror is regrettable, but for the most part it’s agreeably suspenseful, date-night arm-squeezing genre fare.
The Internet short, starring Sandberg’s wife Lotta Losten, is a three-minute exercise in claustrophobic fright: a lone woman (Losten) in her apartment realizes that when she flicks off the hallway lightswitch, she sees the outline of a figure at the other end. Curious, she keeps toggling, until one flick too many results in the figure instantly materializing right next to her. Sandberg’s handling of this nifty far-then-close effect, which caught the eye of producers Wan and Lawrence Grey, is now the opening of the expanded movie, set in a textile factory at night, with Losten as an employee shutting things down for her boss Paul (Billy Burke), and encountering the gnarled, spindly-fingered figure when turning out a workroom light. Needless to say, closing time doesn’t end well.
Paul’s home life, we learn as Eric Heisserer‘s screenplay unfolds, hasn’t been so rosy, either. His grade-school-age son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is falling asleep at school because at night he’s kept awake by the mysterious shadows that lurk in their big, old, dark Tudor Craftsman house, not to mention the fact that his disturbed mother Sophie (Maria Bello) surreptitiously talks to someone named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey).
A concerned counselor at Martin’s school calls Martin’s older stepsister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who moved out after her own father left the family years ago, and who believes her mother is too unstable to look after Martin. Rebecca’s makeshift play to become the boy’s guardian is thwarted by legality, however, which sends Martin back to Sophie’s suspiciously underlit house. Rebecca, with her attentive boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) in tow, is then forced to both confront a nightmarish situation she thought she’d left behind and uncover the secret behind the malevolent Diana.
As with many modern multiplex haunts, the backstory stuff is the weakest element — the explained diagnosis that kills the atmosphere — but at least Sandberg seems to understand that, too. Dialogue moments are, for better or worse, short and sweet and perfunctorily handled, possibly because he knows he’s got a canny cinematic device, and takes every opportunity to turn spare darkness into potential squirm moments. Nothing’s ever truly scary, but the gestalt of this fearscape is fun and briskly handled.
To that end, Vela-Bailey’s gnarled physicality is a creepy plus, and cinematographer Marc Spicer does a fine job turning the housebound third act into a succession of working/non-working light sources. Less exciting is Sandberg’s reliance on loud sound effects, which too often undercut a ploy better served by sustained dread than forced shocks.
The performances help as well. Palmer, last seen in the melodramatic “The Choice,” makes an appealing heroine, and Bateman’s terrified reactions are often palpable. He and the reliably intense Bello even share a scene that unnerves on acting alone: an unhinged mom insisting to her disbelieving, increasingly scared son, as she physically holds him down, that Diana means well.
“Lights Out” makes it perfectly clear that Diana is no friend, and for much of this movie’s nicely compact running time, it’s an effective enough haunting that one has hopes for what Sandberg will do with his next Wan-produced movie, the “Conjuring” franchise installment “Annabelle 2.”