PLOT A mother’s dark past begins to haunt her children.
CAST Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello
RATED PG-13 (some gruesome and bloody moments)
BOTTOM LINE A nifty fright flick with glimmers of depth. Short and effective.
Little Martin is having a difficult time in “Lights Out,” an effective and occasionally affecting horror film from first-time director David F. Sandberg. Martin’s dad ran off, his stepfather has been killed and his mother is a depressed recluse. “Some quality personal time is what we need,” mom tells her young son. “All three of us.”
The third guest, unfortunately, is a demon named Diana who exists only in the dark. Diana’s jealousy keeps Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and his fragile mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), isolated in a gloomy house where the curtains are drawn and light bulbs are forbidden. Martin sometimes suspects he’s imagining it all, but his estranged older sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, “Warm Bodies”), has seen Diana, too. Whoever or whatever Diana is, she runs in the family.
Horror films traditionally come with hidden metaphors — flawed parenting, sexual impulses and guilty secrets are favorite themes — but lately the subtexts have become the stories themselves. In 2014’s “The Babadook,” a mother’s weakness took the form of a boogeyman; in last year’s “The Witch,” a religious father’s zealotry created the very thing he feared. In “Lights Out,” a woman’s mental illness becomes an evil spirit, a form of misery that literally loves company. All of this is an unexpected but welcome trend after so many sick-joke “Saw” movies and thematically threadbare episodes of “Paranormal Activity.”
“Lights Out,” which is based on Sandberg’s short film, has essentially one special effect: Diana appears and disappears with the flip of a light switch. It’s a nifty but limited trick, so Sandberg puts some extra effort into his characters, and the results are rewarding. Rebecca’s goth-rock exterior hides a soft heart, while her supercool boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), turns out to be sweet as a puppy. They make an endearing team. Bello is effective, if slightly underused, as a mother slipping into a bottomless pit of her own making.
At a scant 80 minutes long, “Lights Out” can feel lightweight. It’s possible Sandberg had more to say about mental illness and its generational echoes, but didn’t want to overburden his short, economical film. Maybe that was the right call. “Lights Out” achieves its modest goals quite admirably.