In 2013, director David F. Sandberg released a micro short film entitled Lights Out. The short was simple and fast, but it remains one of the scariest short films ever released. As a woman is about to go to bed, she turns the hallway lights out. As she flicks the switch, standing in the darkness behind her, is a silhouette of a humanoid figure. The woman notices, and turns the lights back on. But the figure is gone. She turns the lights back off, and the figure reappears. The cycle repeats until there is a clear escalation in terror.
The short is a perfect practice in horror, and furthermore, something more refined in regards to jump-scares. Whereas most horror films either work on slow-burning tension (The Shining, to name a positive example), or use jump-scares as their tactic (James Wan’s films, to name a positive example), Lights Out did something else. The instantaneous unease of seeing something as fast as a light turning off is a jump scare that puts you into an immediate state of unease.
The short is great, and if you haven’t had a chance to see it, turn off the lights (or don’t… you’ll have to turn them off sooner or later), and check it out Here!
This short has now been adapted into a full length feature, and at the helm for his feature-length debut is Sandberg himself. The story, understandably, has been extended to include a somewhat thick plot, with mental patients, mind-ghosts, and issues of child-protection services. And despite becoming unfortunately muddled with the plot and it’s progression, the film is a great, fun exercise for Sandberg as a horror auteur.
The major detriment to this film is its muddled one-two punch. As mentioned before, the plot becomes very thick, with cliches and over-exposition, to try and justify what exactly is this ghost/demon that haunts the main family. As its origins are delved into more and more, I began to wonder why exactly we needed all of this justification of “it” in the first place. The idea of some creepy entity, that can only be seen in the darkness of shadows, is substantially more terrifying when I know nothing about it. I wish more modern horror films had stronger faith in the audience, and relied on the “Jaws” effect. The less we see (or know, or hear), the more terrifying the unknown can be.
As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And I get the sense that Sandberg knows this, but the screenwriter forgot.
The second largest issue with this film is its dialogue. There really isn’t much structure to begin with, nor many goals for the characters. Which is fine. Not ideal, but in a film where style stands over substance, I’ll let it pass. What hurts most, however, was the delivery of this already-rocky exposition being forced to the audience. There are so many moments where the characters are begging the audience to suspend their disbelief for the existence of this sinister creature. And this hurts the final product severely.
Now, despite these detriments, the film is brimming with fun moments. There are several cheap jump-scares throughout, but they are made and shown through awesome practical effects, or lighting trickery, which makes it all the more exciting to see the main demon do something. One would have to be a fool to think that Sandberg and company are not having a fun time designing these scares. Just a few months ago, when the trailer for this film was released, Sandberg released a behind the scenes featurette on the making of certain scenes (definitely check it out here). Based strictly off of this, as well as his expanded short film collection, you can clearly sense that Sandberg is a great directorial talent, and has many unseen tricks up his sleeve. And nowhere is that more apparent than the scare designs in this film.
The first two acts of this film are a little more sparse with these scares. What would have made this film significantly stronger is abandoning a lot of the expositional aspects, and instead make the characters the new unsuspecting prey of this demon. What was fun, and make this film worth a watch, is the absolutely chaotic and exciting third act, in which the young heroes must spend a night in a house with this thing. The scares are well designed, the lighting is great, and the creature design is fantastic.
All around, the film is allowed to shine in the final act of the film.
If instead we focused less on the explanation, and more on the scares and build-up of tension, the film would have been strong. It’s a hard balance to ask for, and a harder one to put into practicality. But I have a hope that Sandberg will receive many more film offers in the near future. He clearly has a strong sense of how to execute a scare. But a stronger screenplay would work miles better in his hands.
Written by: Jake Sanders