Torrential downpour, an oddly opened door and a dimly lit house – these are the ingredients which so often contribute to the spooky atmosphere of a horror movie. Yet when I went to see Lights Out last night real life conspired to remind me just how unnerving blinding rain, opened doors which you know you closed and dim lighting can be. As a result, the movie itself is but a faint memory now. I more remember how terrifying it was driving through a thunderstorm in an unfamiliar area of the city with next to zero visibility.
Not that I had any sense of that while watching Lights Out. During the film’s big finale, a ghost pursues a family through a dimly lit house, as ghosts so often do in movies. Except this time the ghost has a peculiar quirk – she can only come out in the shadows. The family, consisting of Maria Bello as the mom and Teresa Palmer as the estranged adult daughter who only returned to look out for her much younger brother Martin (played by Gabriel Bateman), are scattered through the house with no electricity. Also on hand is Palmer’s kinda, sorta boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia). Their only hope is that their flashlights, candles, cell phones and other sources of light don’t go out.
Needless to say, it’s a pretty tense sequence. First time director David F. Sandberg, who was given the chance to adapt his short video of the same name to a full-length feature thanks to support from James Wan and producer Lawrence Grey, cleverly utilizes both light and sound to crank out jump scare after jump scare. For example, the brief light emanating from a gun firing horrifyingly illuminates what one character sees in the final seconds before their grisly demise. Other characters trapped in the basement can only listen in, hearing the ghost’s footsteps scurrying about upstairs, circling on unsuspecting victims. As an audience member, you scan every shadow, every darkened room corner to spot the ghost before the characters do. Sometimes you succeed, other times you don’t.
It’s all relatively standard horror movie stuff just with a villain who can only live in the dark, coming off like a clever marriage of Doctor Who‘s brilliant season 4 two-parter “The Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” and The Conjuring. The build up to this finale is well-paced and acted. The basic story of a manic-depressive mother who seems to have a murderous ghost friend is enough to hold your interest, and the random bursts of horror are quite ingenious. Sometimes it comes you with the simple flick of a light switch, but Sandberg keeps it interesting by utilizing all manners of ambient light (such as an intermittently flashing neon sign outside an apartment window) to both frame the ghost’s attacks and save the character’s at the last second.
Much has been made about this being the rare horror film where the adults are in peril, not the children, but little Martin is scared plenty of times. However, so is his older sister, and the story ultimately comes down to this supernatural encounter bringing a fractured family back together.
But that finale, in particular, was extra tense for me because that’s exactly when a thunderstorm started to roll into town. I had ignored the weather forecast because those 7 prior thunderstorms my local weatherman predicted never arrived. Also, I was at a theater I’d never been to before. As such, I honestly couldn’t tell if the extra noise which greeted every spooky moment in the film’s finale was due to impeccable sound design or if it was more thanks to strong wind literally shaking the walls of the theater.
I got my answer when I walked out of the theater after the movie and saw a group gathered on the steps, lamenting the mad dash they were going to have to make to their cars through the pouring rain. The awestruck theater employees informed all of us, “You guys missed your window. This just started.”
Suddenly any thoughts I had about Lights Out’s somewhat lackluster final moment and odd prospects for a sequel gave way to, “Fuck, I barely even know where I am right now. How am I going to drive through this?” The weather app on my phone showed me all the wrong colors, with a big yellow and red-colored storm cell moving into town. Why couldn’t it have just been a green-colored rain cell? And the storm was projected to be sticking around for maybe two hours. However, if I left right then I could possibly reach the home I was house-sitting for that night before the really bad parts of the storm got there.
Yeah, not so much. After around 10 minutes of nerve-wracking, zero visibility driving I turned around and returned to the theater. In fact, I just went back in and bought a ticket to see another movie since I was pretty much stuck there for at least an hour or two.
Actually, I left a quarter of the way through. What? I’d already seen it before (and liked it more than most), and the storm ended up leaving town earlier than projected. Around the time Tarzan neck-rubbed a couple of lions is when I got the hotel out of there.
That’s exactly what I felt like doing when I got to the house, though, because the first thing I saw while pulling into the garage was the wide open back door. But, hold on, I know for a fact that door was closed when I left. Did someone break in? Could be a g-g-g-ghost! Holy shit, I’m in my own horror movie!
Spoiler alert: The wind from the storm knocked it open. That possibility didn’t occur to me, though. Instead, I found myself tentatively exploring the back yard, with my car headlights and cell phone flashlight app pointing the way. Next came the house, which was almost as dark as the Lights Out house. To be clear, I didn’t actually suspect something supernatural was afoot. No, I was more scared I was walking in on a robbery.
Or so I told myself. In reality, I think I knew everything was fine, especially considering how few crimes there have ever been in the slice of suburbia I called home that night. Maybe I just wanted to indulge a childlike fear of the dark, to play like the characters in the movie I’d just seen. That’s part of the cathartic fun of a horror movie experience. A good horror movie should make you want to turn on all the lights when you get home. It should provide a momentary respite from the true horrors of the world, often by playing on elemental fears. Lights Out did all of those things for me.
Luckily, there was no one in the house, no big, scary guy in a ski mask waiting for me. Still, I turned on every light, and chuckled to myself, realizing Lights Out had gotten to me more than I realized. It didn’t make me scared of ghosts, but, as it turns out since this is what caused that back door to fly open, it made me scared of the wind.
Moral of the story? Always check the weather report before going to see a movie because sometimes weathermen actually know what they’re doing. Also, if it can be helped don’t go see a horror movie at night while house-sitting a slightly unfamiliar home. Not a good combination.