Film Review | When family history takes revenge

David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out serves as a springboard-vehicle for the up-and-coming director 

Gabriel Bateman and Teresa Palmer play beleaguered siblings in this domestic ghost story
Gabriel Bateman and Teresa Palmer play beleaguered siblings in this domestic ghost story

Horror movies are great at distilling our keenest and most fastidiously repressed fear and anxieties. That is, when they’re not too busy trading in the basest of schlock to assuage mouth-breathing gore-hounds and/or bored moviegoers simply after a cheap thrill. 

But the best of them have the power to perform the pop culture equivalent of cheap communal therapy – or exorcism, if you will – by allowing us to confront our fears and take the corresponding adrenaline ride that comes along that experience from the safety of the cinema auditorium and/or our home screens. 

And although it’s very much a slick product of a particular strand of commercially dependable horror movies to come out of late – aided along by its producer and very much serving like a springboard-vehicle for its up-and-coming director – David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out has some depths to explore. 

After her stepfather Paul (Billy Burke) dies in freak accident involving a mysterious humanoid entity at work, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) feels compelled to protect her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) from their mentally unstable mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) – who appears to have stopped taking her medication and is often seen talking to an imaginary friend… who may or may not be the entity that killed Rebecca’s stepfather (who was Martin’s father). 

Mummy dearest: Maria Bello
Mummy dearest: Maria Bello

With Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) in tow, the siblings soon discover that the entity in question is not just a figment of their mother’s imagination, and that in order to rid themselves of what has become a dangerous family curse, they need to find a way to tackle it head on… without losing their lives in the process.

With the help of contemporary horror maestro James Wan – the director behind the hugely successful The Conjuring and Insidious franchises – and working off a script by Eric Heisserer, this debut feature film from Sandberg was adapted from a short film by the Swedish director, who made something of a name for producing ‘no budget’ horror shorts. In this way, whether by accident or design, Sandberg places himself in parallel to his Australian colleague Jennifer Kent, who also spun a domestic horror yarn about mothers, children and haunting family history out of a short film and into the striking feature The Babadook. 

Sadly, Sandberg doesn’t really have the depth and heart-rending texture of The Babadook – to say nothing of its powerful performances – and as a result Lights Out cleaves close to formula and adheres to a more conventional string of dramatic beats to get a rise out of the audience. That it’s ‘curated’ by James Wan is evident in the sleek photography and judiciously arranged plots and sub-plots, while also keeping to Wan’s predilection for jump scares and spookiness over twisty plots and gore. 

This ensures that, at the very least, the film maintains a healthy pace while retaining a down-to-earth, domestic feel throughout that helps us to stay on board with the only marginally outlandish concept that animates this family chiller. The ‘monster’ is used sparingly, and the inevitable jump scares – when they do arrive – feel earned. 

What’s most rewarding is that Sandberg and Heisserer actually have a strong thematic focus – the burden of a tortured family history and the new generation’s responsibility of confronting it and seeing it through – that is built upon and reflected through the proceedings. While this is regrettably telegraphed in the most unsubtle way you can imagine – a final line by the young Martin really hammers it home in a way that’s borderline-embarrassing – and neither is it helped along by uninspiring performances all round, it also means that in its own pulpy way, here’s a horror film that’s actually trying to say something. 

A compact piece of genre entertainment that hints at greater things for its emerging director.

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