‘Lights Out’ is stupid and I love it

by Simon Williams on July 23, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Readers, I have to make an awful admission. For the last month or two, I have been… (dramatic musical stab)

In a rut.

I know, it’s hard and it’s scary for me too. Maybe it was finals, maybe it was the production of my most recent film, maybe it was that Batman Vs. Superman really did break me. I don’t know, but for quite awhile I have been stuck. Stuck watching cartoons, playing video games, and drinking enough Sierra Nevada to turn the town of Chico, California into a minor bottling metropolis. What few times I’ve seen films in recent memory left too little an impression to materialize into a solid piece of writing and so I have been away, off in this cinematic exile from which little belabored the thought of my return.

But then I saw Lights Out.

Based on his short film that circulated the internet not long back, Lights Out is the debut feature of director David F. Sandberg. For reasons of Adblock, I had not seen the myriad of ads that plastered the walls of Facebook and played before every Youtube video for weeks until the release of the film, so I knew very little about it before I came to the theater for my press screening. I was perhaps a tad shocked when a debut film had a line out the door of excited early audience members, but one Google search led me to the revelation that the film had an endorsement and producer credit by and to one James Wan of Saw and Conjuring fame. His films are wildly popular, and have always surprised me by being much better than their advertising would ever lead you to believe, so I became interested.

Lights Out has very little of Wan’s fingerprints on it. It’s a lot less polished, far less subtle, and indulged in a lot more conventional jump-scares and screaming and running than one of Wan’s films. It’s far more of a throwback to the golden era of cheaply made, schlocky horror films of the 80s and 90s, with a minuscule cast, high-concept premise and almost funny disregard for backstory. I mean it’s there, but it doesn’t matter. The plot of the film is more a vehicle for broad horror set pieces than a deeply important or thoughtful exploration of a concept. The thematic backing even feels copy-pasted from the far superior The Babadook by Jennifer Kent, playing with a monster as representation of a mother’s grief and mental illness. It doesn’t really go in-depth here though, nor does it give the subject matter the same level of sympathy as Kent’s film.

So if I have so little positive comparisons for this project, why do I offer it a positive rating?

Because, dear reader, this is the most fun piece of total schlock I’ve seen in some time. I kind of love this stupid fucking movie.

It’s a personal belief of mine that we’ve been seeing the beginnings of a renaissance for English-language horror films. The genre has been clawing itself out of the self-imposed ghetto it dug itself into in the 2000s with thoughtful, atmospheric and playful films that could hold their own with some of the best of the genre. We have our sleek, taught, controlled John Carpenter-esque works of mass market subversions (Wan’s previous work), we’ve had the deeply personal, rough-at-the-edges art-horror films (The Babadook and The Witch), and we’ve had our inventive and playful deconstructions (Cabin in the Woods and the sadly underseen The Guest), but we’ve still yet to have something to just admit its flaws and allow itself to be schlock. This is The Re-Animator, The Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Evil Dead. We haven’t had anything willing to just put itself out there and embrace the silliness that can come with the genre. With Lights Out, however, I think we’ve got a decent candidate.

The low budget of this film is obvious. Half the cast is obviously trying oh-so hard to hide their English accents. Teresa Palmer, in the lead role, sleepwalks though the entire film and occasionally feels like she’s being woken up from a bad dream. The plot, as said above, is cliche and non-consequential.

However, the film doesn’t care about any of that and neither do I. It’s not much more than a series of horror set pieces with occasionally clever effects and very clever action beats, that’s all it wants to be and goddamn if it doesn’t do that well.

For awhile after seeing it I wondered if my enjoyment of the film was for not entirely respectable reasons, if I enjoyed it for reasons closer to that of an MST3K film than that of a truly solid genre effort. But you know what? Why the hell do I have to be respectable with my recommendations all the time? If something is fun I’m gonna tell the world it’s fun and dammit this film is fun.

There’s a chase scene through the house involving the boyfriend character and his cellphone that is one of the most enjoyable beats in recent memory. There’s product placement that is some of the most amusingly bizarre since Troll 2 (why are they eating Sriracha-flavored Kettle chips?) The opening stinger is hilarious and exciting. Maria Bello throws herself into her mother role like she’s in a John Cassavetes film and I have no idea why she is in for this crappy dialogue but it’s amazing.

Go see this thing. If you have to pirate it, sure go ahead that actually seems fitting. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for lovers of classic B-horror camp this film is rather wonderful. It’s not gonna be a classic and it’s not gonna change anyone’s lives, but it’s fun and it’s stupid in all the best ways. I want to see this again in theaters. I want to find a way to watch this on VHS. I want to write a riff-track with my friends and I want to watch it a bunch of times and form a religion around it.

It’s schlock and it’s proud and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. It got me out of my rut and I have nothing but positive feelings towards it.

Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.

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