[Screen It]


(2016) (Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman) (PG-13)

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Horror: A young woman tries to save her younger brother and their mentally ill mother from a supernatural entity that's only present in the dark or dimly lit spaces
Rebecca (TERESA PALMER) is a young woman who's lived away from home for some time, what with no longer being able to exist under the same roof as her mentally ill mother, Sophie (MARIA BELLO). She sort of has a boyfriend in Bret (ALEXANDER DiPERSIA), but is reluctant to allow him to get too close, at least in terms of sleeping over at her place.

Her concerns switch over to her younger brother, Martin (GABRIEL BATEMAN), when she learns he's been falling asleep in school, no doubt the result of his mom's place being haunted by an entity known as Diana (ALICIA VELA-BAILEY) who only shows up in the dark or in dimly lit environs.

Rebecca is familiar with her and comes to realize her past interactions weren't some figment of her imagination years ago. From that point on, she does what she can to protect her brother and try to remove him and their mother from harm's way.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Do you know why most scares in horror films occur in dimly lit and often confined spaces rather than in bright, open environs? For starters, it's easier to unsettle, startle, and scare viewers when they can't see what's coming. The deeper reason, of course, goes into our instinctual wiring.

While prehistoric humans obviously faced all sorts of dangers during the daylight, at least they could see what was coming and had some degree of a fighting chance of eluding and thus surviving that. But the dark meant that danger could be lurking nearby, ready to pounce at any moment, with the uncertainty and fear about that likely being as unnerving as any actual attack.

Thus, humans figured out how to harness fire to illuminate their surroundings and eliminate some of the element of surprise. That was followed by the invention of candles, lanterns, gas lighting, electric light bulbs, flashlights and so on. Yet, despite the elimination of most of our predators (besides our own species, and at least referring to the civilized world) we still have an innate fear of the dark, starting at a young age and often continuing into adulthood for some.

Horror filmmakers have long known this and repeatedly put their characters -- and thus the viewer alongside them -- into bad situations where deep shadows, darkness and uncertainty abound. As long as that sort of material is handled in the right fashion, it's a surefire method to get the old goose bumps, hair standing on end and shrieks going.

Such is the case in the latest "be afraid of the dark" flick, "Lights Out." You may have seen the trailer where characters spot figures in the shadows of barely lit places, only to have them disappear when the lights are turned on (or go through their on-off cycle) and then reappear when they go back out.

Beyond the "what is that" fear that evokes, the gotcha moment occurs when said figures have changed positions or suddenly come at the characters during the on part and such proximity is revealed in the next lights out moment. It's an effective gimmick in the trailers and that carries over into the film, although the filmmakers -- director David F. Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer -- don't get as creative as they could and should have in adapting Sandberg's original short film (that I have not seen).

The story revolves around a young woman (Teresa Palmer) who left home after a falling out with her mentally ill and mostly reclusive mother (Maria Bello), thus leaving her much younger brother (Gabriel Bateman) at home in a definite house of horrors.

Rebecca gets the call after Martin has repeatedly fallen asleep during school, what with not being able to catch any shuteye due to a ghastly figure that has some sort of connection to his mom, Sophie. Rebecca knows all too well about this and is determined to rescue her brother from the nightmare.

But her new interaction means the spirit comes a-knocking (actually scratching on the floor), which results in a trip back home with her brother and boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) to fix things. That not only results in the obligatory backstory of what served as the catalyst for the haunting, but also lots of jolts and scares along the way. And they involve the usual horror tropes of being in basements, the fear of what's in closets and under the bed and so on.

Considering the premise, however, I'm shocked those involved didn't trot out one of the oldest such horror elements, the thunderstorm at night. After all, lighting is bright, but it's also sudden and random, and I kept waiting for the storm to arrive but it never did.

Nor did any sort of strobe, flare gun, or, in fact, any really creative or imaginative plotting of keeping the lights on (or just the locales lit up), only to have that thwarted by the obviously mad spirit (do they come any other way?). Yes, there are a few such quick moments done in reaction mode, but -- being the greedy scare monger I am -- I wanted more.

None of which detracts from what's present, as the flick is certainly effective in terms of delivering the jolts and overall creepiness, and the performances are good from all involved (with DiPersia serving as the much-needed occasional comic relief). But with a little extra conceived thought and delivered execution, this could have been a classic. As it stands, "Lights Out" is good enough that it could have some viewers running up their electric bills at night after seeing it. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed July 12, 2016 / Posted July 22, 2016

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