“Lights Out” Director David Sanberg Follows James Wan’s Classic Style
“Light Out” is a movie directed by David F. Sandberg in the style and tone of horror’s most marketable voice, James Wan. Wan’s two “Conjuring” movies may easily be the most influential horror movies to have graced the screen. The “Conjuring” movies are variations on the same tune, that of preternatural terror creeping into the insignificant but secure enclosure of a middle class suburban home. The demon grasps God’s powers within these mortgaged walls, and acts in mysterious ways. The exorcists, the family and the audience have no choice but to untangle the mystery through a dark glass, a glass that can fracture at the demon’s and director’s will and kill a character or two to maintain the tension in the room. What’s most interesting, however, is the weakness of any overarching plot and the absence of any resonant theme. The “Conjuring” movies refuse to partition time for psychological insight; torment is the only game in town, and Wan’s filmography features a vicious line-up. Unsurprisingly, Wan has won an imitator in the form of Sandberg, who even goes so far to hire Wan as a producer to inherit and feature every fault and achievement of the contemporary horror superstar.
The movie concerns the fractured family of Sophie, Rebecca and Martin. Sophie is the mother of the latter two characters, and Rebecca is Martin’s half-sister who has run away from home. Sophie is struggling with an unidentifiable mental illness, one that involves an imaginary friend with whom she enthusiastically carries out nightly conversations in her room. Unfortunately, the walls of the house are too thin and these conversations have unknowingly drained Martin of sleep and safety. What’s more, someone gruesomely murders Martin’s father in a mannequin warehouse and leaves not a trace behind for the law to track. Upon learning about her half-brother’s troubles, Rebecca returns home with her boyfriend with the intention of removing Martin from their increasingly unstable mother. But disturbing and inexplicable events conspire to keep the family together, and Rebecca realizes it is not stability but survival that is at stake.
There is a solid parallel between Sophie’s relationship to the imaginary friend and Rebecca’s relationship to Sophie. The ineffable tug of proximity at which the rest of society leers with distrust. Just as Sophie is unable to stop talking to her friend, Rebecca is unable to abide by due process when an evil from the shadows threatens to consume the family whole. It is a point of convergence for the two characters that should result in a beautiful irony where it magnetizes and repels them with equal magnitude, but it isn’t. The family feud can only be interesting in concept because of the movie’s faith in Wan’s formula. According to Wan’s formula, inter-character conflict can only be a gloss to color and texture the pauses between the screams. Unfortunately, horror movies are just that: horror and movie. One cannot be so feasibly cordoned from the other, and the craft of one inevitably affects that of the other. Sandberg’s film is an impatient scribble of a first draft, designed with gaping discontinuities to accommodate the scenes of horror. Even at its best, the movie feels like an exercise in wringing hearts rather than ringing art.
But how good is it at scares? It’s surprisingly difficult to say. I watched the movie with a number of friends, and excluding the one who professed frequently that he’d much rather watch “Finding Dory” for the third time, the others appeared genuinely frightened by the shocks the film delivers. Without a doubt, there are sequences in the film that pick the best fruit of Wan’s garden. Wan’s strengths have been his workings of the immediate geography of the movie. He keeps his locations walled off and relatively small, with the camera constantly giving gaze to certain furniture and other objects in order to give the audience an impression of where things are in relation to other things. The camera always takes its sweet time at corners and bends to nurture the anticipation of the scare, from where the sequence branches into several possibilities: a scare, a fake-out that is sometimes just as scary as a scare, a fake-out followed by a scare. The scare is differentiated from the rest of the buildup by the stark intrusion of noise not native to the plot, usually in the form of screeching strings. Sandberg mimics all of these traits well, particularly in one sequence involving writings on the wall near the end of the film.
But there is an inherent problem in Wan and Sanberg’s organization of their films. The sequences are organized like songs are in a rock album. The beginning and ends of each sequence are very explicit. The room darkens, the music fades or the characters begin moving very slowly to signal the beginning, and the aforementioned branching paths of fake-outs and scares tie the ribbon on the jump scare gift basket. What’s more, it’s a handy way to organize a horror film and pace the scares in a constantly engaging fashion. But a rock album is organized in such a way to call attention to recurrent themes and other musical patterns. The album, physically and not, exists to lend unity to the hard work of the many sessions. Implemented here, however, it only does more to lay bare the ultimately shallow and narrow repertoire of the whole enterprise.
This is a problem that could’ve been avoided by an injection of more “movie” into the horror. The repetitive techniques of each sequence could’ve perhaps served to highlight the destructively circular nature of the interpersonal attractions at play: how one must endure the same terrible nights over and over again because one cannot sever her empathy for the other person. It is an idea, among many, that could’ve saved the movie from being so thoroughly characterized by its emptiness. Emptiness may not be a fair judgment, considering the amount of work that went into such a production and the minute-to-minute engagement factor, but once the movie has left the screen, there is not much that’s left in the viewer’s mind, either.
It’s a polished film that does not risk the dirt and mud and grease of worthwhile insight, and perhaps it’s all the more cleaner for it. But it is not better for it, and the only ones disappointed will be fans left wanting more.