Turn on the frights

A smart, psychological thriller lurking in the dark

Starring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman and Maria Bello. Directed by David F. Sandberg. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Dad (Billy Burke) is working late at the office. Little Martin (Gabriel Bateman) calls him on the phone to tell him “Mom” (Maria Bello) is acting very weird again. Dad promises to make things better soon, and then he goes to see what’s causing that strange shadow out in the hallway. Something weird starts happening with the lights in the office, and then something really drastic happens.

David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, a smartly turned psycho-thriller, starts with that, and goes immediately to a scene that occurs a short time later. Martin’s big sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), is cavorting with her very attentive boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), and begins encountering some of the same weirdnesses. That carries over into worries about whether her little brother is safe with the mother she detests.

Nearly all of the plot and suspense of Lights Out arise from those early moments. What makes it unusually interesting, however, is the skill with which anxious states of mind and emotion are made pervasive among the various characters, and fleetingly palpable in the film’s action. The demons in this film are real, but also elusive and very nearly illusory as well.

Sandberg and company achieve this partly through a set of psychologically fraught characterizations. Mom Sophie, the Bello character, is the most conspicuously disturbed of the film’s characters, with Rebecca (who at times might be her double) a not too distant second. But the psychological twists in those two act as a kind of emotional virus for everyone else in the film, including even little Martin.

Plus, there’s the demon in the story, a character called Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) who can be glimpsed only in darkness (hence the film’s title) but who can make a fearsome impact on the physical world and the people in it. As a result, the battle of darkness and light is both literal and symbolic for the film and its characters.

Keeping the lights on becomes a kind of moral imperative for the chief characters in this movie. And the mere presence of darkness and light in a scene creates anxiety and suspense. One of the eeriest shots in the film is a wide shot of a dark street in which a tattoo parlor’s flickering neon sign and the “don’t walk” light at a crosswalk hover like gloomy omens.

Most of Lights Out is smartly staged and nicely understated. The only thing I disliked about it is its needless dependence on conventional, heavy-handed “shock effect” music and sound for otherwise well-developed dramatic moments that are perfectly capable of standing on their own.