Directed by David F. Sandberg || Produced by Lawrence Grey, Eric Heisserer, James Wan || Screenplay by Eric Heisserer || Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Billy Burke, Maria Bello || Music by Benjamin Wallfisch || Cinematography by Marc Spicer || Edited by Michel Aller || Production company: New Line Cinema, Atomic Monster, Grey Matter Production || Distributed by Warner Brothers || Running time: 81 mins. || Release Date: July 22nd, 2016 || Reviewed at AMC Boston Common, July 18th
While watching David F. Sandberg's 2013 short 'Lights Out' (upon which the 2016 film is based), it's not hard to understand why the two-and-a-half minute film works so well. In the short time he gives himself, Sandberg wastes no time sinking his teeth into our universal fear of the dark. He lets our imagination ask what could possibly lurk in the shadows, and answers with a terrifying, resounding final image that confirms our most sinister suspicions.
His feature-length debut, however, despite working with a similarly lean running time, does waste time with some clunky screenwriting. For a running time as short as 81 minutes, one would expect all unnecessary exposition to be shaved from 'Lights Out' - yet, convoluted backstories and superficial themes, aided by grainy, tinted footage and ridiculous ghost voices, still occasionally plague the film.
But that's not to say the film isn't entertaining. It capitalizes on the same jump scare several times with finesse, and the tension established by cinematographer Marc Spicer's sharp awareness of dark space is only bolstered by excellent performances from the cast - most notably, Teresa Palmer, in her strongest performance to date. Sure to be a commercial success, the film had no trouble riling up the audience I watched it with in many sequences - particularly, the film's conclusion. Yet, specific spoilers aside, 'Lights Out' does fall flat in the last few minutes for the sake of lazily tying up the story in a neat bow, proving the film itself doesn't even know what to do with its vague, one-dimensional backstory. It would have been more interesting to see Heisserer's script trust itself to venture into less predictable - more volatile - territory, and it's a shame that it didn't. A tighter script is exactly what the film needs to transcend from "good" to "great."
Ultimately, 'Lights Out' works best when it unabashedly dives into our primal fears like its source material did. The best sequence of the film is easily when Bret (Alexander DiPersia) encounters Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), the villain, using a series of fun ways to escape her fatal clutch. The film's clever, visceral thrills and swift blocking speak volumes for themselves. When attempting to justify Diana's existence and origin story, however, the film churns out explanatory dialogue that detracts from its exhilarating momentum established in the opening sequence. Nonetheless, 'Lights Out' still marks a solid debut from David F. Sandberg and an incredibly fun time at the movies. He could simply afford a little more "show" and a little less "tell."