Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lights Out: Moody, Self-Aware Scares

"If Mommy's crazy, does that mean we're crazy too?"
-Martin, Lights Out

***Some spoilers, but none for anything beyond the movie's prologue.***

In order to properly set the mood for this movie review, I'm going to first share the two-and-a-half-minute short from which it originated. 

Sufficiently scared yet, my dear Pinecones? Let us press on.

What you see in the short film above translates quite smoothly into the opening sequence of the feature-length version now hitting theaters, but with a few changes to reflect the feature-length version's better budget (though it's still a relatively low budget at only $5M.) Instead of being set in an apartment with one woman all alone, it's set in a textile factory, with a woman (played by the same actress as in the short) experimentally flicking the lights on and off as she sees a shadowy figure that only appears when the lights are out. Also in the scene is a man named Paul, played by Billy Burke of Revolution fame (and currently starring in CBS's Zoo). He's looking at files pertaining to a place called "Mulberry Hill, California," and there are a few mannequins in and around his office that aren't creepy at all. And he's Face-Timing with his son Martin (Gabriel Bateman, who reminds me so much of the kid from Jurassic Park), who's wondering why he doesn't come home, and is worried as hell because Mom's acting strange...again. Then Paul gets swept up in something strange when the woman tells him she saw something scary. Paul tells her to go home, while he stays where he is and soon winds up in a merry chase with this creature of the dark. Said chase turns deadly when the creature lashes out, bloodying him up really good, and he learns the hard way that somehow, the creature can make the lights go out so it can stalk him more efficiently. Next thing you know, he's left as a horribly broken corpse on the factory floor...

...wait, they killed off Billy Burke in less than ten minutes? That's how you know how serious this movie's monster is.

In the wake of Paul's death, his family is left in disarray. His wife, Sophie (Maria Bello, Touch) is clinically depressed, among other mental illnesses, and even when Martin repeatedly asks if she's taken her "vitamins," it's clear she hasn't, because she keeps talking to herself - or, more accurately, to an imaginary friend known only as "Diana." Meanwhile, Sophie's twentysomething daughter from a previous marriage, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, whom you might remember from The Sorcerer's Apprentice or I Am Number Four), is living on her own, away from the mess at home, and getting into amusing situations with her boyfriend Bret (relative newcomer Alexander diPersia - my research has only unearthed a string of bit parts on his IMDb bio), who wants to be able to leave a pair of jeans at her place but hasn't quite earned that right yet, not even after eight months.

Sophie's grown worse since Paul died, going off her meds. And as for Martin, he's starting to see the same monster that took his father's life, and it's scaring him to death - to the point where he keeps falling asleep in class because he can't sleep at night. Rebecca goes to school (with Bret in tow, as he's the driver) to pick Martin up after the third such incident in a week, and there she meets a Child Protective Services caseworker who's now set to investigate Martin's home life. Rebecca's told to take Martin home, but when she sees how unstrung Sophie's become, she decides to take it upon herself to get Martin out - and he's such a smart little cookie that he packs his bags before she can even ask him to do so.

Then reality ensues when the CPS lady points out that it's not so simple for Rebecca to just take Martin away - she would have to petition for guardianship, sue Sophie for negligence, and prove that she can provide a fit home in which to raise the kid. (Her apartment's full of scary posters depicting horror-comic-type characters and punk and metal bands, which I think are the CPS lady's primary concern about Rebecca's living space.) Not to mention, Bret accuses Rebecca of doing this not so much for Martin's sake so much as to hurt the already-vulnerable Sophie, with whom she's got considerable bad blood for having run away at the first opportunity. Sophie may be sick, but she's determined to raise Martin herself all the same.

But first, she and everyone else around her will have to deal with the creepy monster that keeps following them all around. Not only has it been stalking Sophie's place way up in the hills, but it makes trips into the city to haunt Rebecca in her apartment as well. And that's before Rebecca discovers Paul's research, which provides clues to the monster's identity - and makes it clear just how much of an otherworldly threat it really is.

What sets Lights Out from most of the rest of the horror movie pack is how grounded it is. There aren't any easy solutions to the problems posed by this monster, especially not when it's so inextricably linked to the family. Luckily, our heroes are possessed of guts and brains uncommon for this genre, so even when they appear to be on the point of doing something boneheaded, they're able to correct their mistakes as best they can. And it's a very likable cast this movie has - likable and sympathetic. You can't help but feel bad for poor bedeviled Sophie, because she really wants to make things right with her family. Bret and Rebecca make a good couple with their alternative style (not unlike Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain in Mama) and their adorable interactions. And Martin, you just want to scoop him up and hold him pretty much at all times throughout the movie, because he's the little brother you never had. (Or maybe that's just me.)

The story itself doesn't tread territory that's too new, but it at least demonstrates a certain self-awareness of what happens when you find yourself in a big old haunted house (my dad would like to see this movie just for the house, because of its vaguely Craftsman-styled interior). Not to Cabin in the Woods levels, but it knows how to not play most of the standard tropes straight. It finds inventive ways to turn some of the old tropes on their heads, particularly the "imaginary friend" trope, because you wouldn't think it's the mom who has one of those, would you? Also, speaking of the house, you'll notice that it's actually better-lit at night than during the day, because the curtains are often drawn with no lights on - which not only makes it easier for the monster to get around, but helps increase the movie's moody atmosphere.

I will say this much, though...the ending (which I will not spoil) is bittersweet, to say the least. Emphasis on "bitter," really.

Overall, this movie, I give it a B+. Plot-wise, it's not terribly original - and hell, the monster's origin seems to mash up all the past horror movies at once. But it's the character department where the movie truly excels.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

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