When you were watching The Babadook, our favorite horror film of 2014, did you find yourself wishing that the film was tasteless, lifeless, and dismally formulaic? If yes, then you are going to love Lights Out. (Also, you are ridiculous.) The Babadook was a wonderfully written & performed depiction of severe depression and how it can affect parenting, one filtered through a demonic metaphor that both terrifies & inspires sincere reflection. Its delicate conclusion suggests that there are no simple solutions to clinical depression or whatever other monsters haunt our personal relationships, mental illness or otherwise. Lights Out, by comparison, is a grotesquely Hollywood take on the same metaphor. While The Babadook follows a mother as she struggles with her own mental health, Lights Out instead takes a distant, almost vilifying look at the same struggle. In The Babadook we empathize with a woman who finds herself uncontrollably annoyed by her own child; Lights Out shifts to the child’s POV, making the mother seem like a heartlessly selfish brute. Both movies represent depression as a monster made of pure darkness, but only one is visually interesting or at all unique in its specificity. Both are blatant in their shared metaphor, but only one handles it with any semblance of compassion or nuance. Both cover the same territory, but only one is worth watching. Hint: it’s not Lights Out.
Instead of following the story of the people who suffer the most in this mental health horror (the depressed woman & the young son under her care), Lights Out finds its audience surrogate in the boy’s older goth rock sister who no longer lives at home. This one step removal from the crisis at hand does little but deflate the emotional impact of the mother’s struggle (by making her look abusive & downright feral from an outsider’s perspective) and to clear room for a completely besides the point romance with another goth rock knucklehead it takes a significant amount of effort to merely tolerate. The estranged daughter returns home to find her mother in a manic state, the same as she was when she was a kid. The curtains are drawn; the mother is holed up & babbling to herself; her youngest child is too scared to sleep. The depression demon that haunts the household is given the physical form of Diana, a “childhood friend” (translation: lifelong illness) of the mother’s with severe light sensitivity and a jealous rage that threatens the physical & spiritual safety of anyone who dares to love her best bud. The images of a depressed woman’s home life as well as her distant past in a mental institution feel horrifically outdated & clichéd in an entirely stigmatizing, unrelatable way, especially in light of recent, empathetic works like Gabriel & I Smile Back. It’s the exact clumsy hand you’d expect in a Hollywood horror on such a delicate topic, but without any other discernible entertainment value present to distract you from the problem. What should be an interesting metaphor is boiled down to cheap jump scares, haunted house ambiance, and a violently fucked up climax that’s so unearned in its emotional & shock value provocation that it’s difficult to feel anything but cheated & manipulated in the tawdriest of ways when you (thankfully) reach the end credits.
Funnily enough, I went to the theater thinking I was going to watch the upcoming thriller Don’t Breathe, a horrific-looking film about a blind killer that (based on its trailer) could’ve easily carried the title Lights Out. That’s not the first time this happened to me, either. I’ve also gotten this movie’s title mixed up with the goofy Grand Canyon horror flick The Darkness from earlier this year before, for obvious reasons. (Full disclosure: I planned on watching all three anyway.) This confusion points to one of Lights Out‘s biggest problems: mediocrity, a total lack of distinction. It’s not silly enough to be campy. It’s not brutal enough to be disturbing (except maybe in that unearned finale). It’s not memorable enough to justify its existence in light of the far superior work The Babadook. There’s some interesting visual play with the film’s central gimmick that doesn’t allow its monster to appear in light, especially in the way it incorporates black lights, headlights, flashlights, candles, and gunshot flashes in its tool kit. However, most of the best uses of the gimmick (including its blacklit Blood & Black Lace mannequins) are spoiled by Lights Out‘s better-than-the-film trailer and are backed up by a cast of characters completely devoid of charisma. The one exception on that latter point might be the demon Diana, but she gets very little screen time & is mostly dealt with as a monster in the closet/under the bed threat instead of treated with the respect her mental health metaphor deserves. Lights Out is a bland, hamfisted misstep that bungles its attempts to tackle a serious, worthwhile topic. Worse yet, it feels like a subpar version of a recent, iconic work we’ve already seen & (in my case, at least) would rather watch again instead of seeing it bastardized. If you can manage it, I’d suggest skipping this film entirely & sticking to watching it’s actually well-put-together trailer, which works just fine as a two minute horror short. You’ll be much better off & I’ll envy your resolve.