Lights Out

★★★ ½
Opening Friday, July 22, 2016

The story behind Lights Out, the surprisingly effective first feature film by David F. Sandberg, is the stuff of indie auteur fantasy. After Sandberg put a no-budget short starring his wife, Lotta Losten, on YouTube, it went viral, attracting the attention of horror maven James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring). Wan was impressed enough to help Sandberg develop his dialogue-free short into a major studio film, and New Line Cinema’s faith was justified. While it’s no The Babadook, Lights Out is an efficient haunted-house thriller, as witty and charming as it is spooky.

If you haven’t seen the 2013 short, I suggest avoiding it if you’re easily scared. Alone in an apartment, Losten switches off the lights on her way to bed. From the other end of a dark hallway, she makes out the silhouette of a hunched woman by her closet. Switching the lights back on makes her disappear. Off: there again, a little closer this time. Click: gone. Click: there. It’s a minor masterpiece of horror filmmaking reduced to its cinematic essence.

One thinks of the childhood game analyzed by Sigmund Freud, in which his grandson alternately hides and reveals a toy from behind the furniture. The unconscious purpose of this repetitive play, Freud said, was to gain a sense of control over the trauma of his single mother’s frequent absences. Taking a page out of the Freudian playbook, Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer fleshed out the short’s minimal premise into a story of a broken family haunted by the fear of abandonment.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is drawn back to her family home because her unstable mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), appears to be terrorizing Rebecca’s much younger half-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Of course, the truth is much stranger. Sophie spends her nights talking to shadows, which conceal the movie’s real star, a spectral crone with stringy hair and clicking fingernails who wants Sophie all to herself.

The hauntings intensify when Sophie feels abandoned, whether by her children’s absent fathers or her children themselves. The story of her relationship with the ghost, told in an obligatory archival-research montage, veers into high camp. But the supernatural custody battle between Rebecca and Sophie over Martin is handled with more realism and sensitivity than is typically found in boilerplate horror.

Lights Out truly shines in the staging of its scare sequences. As in the short, the ghost disappears in the light and reappears in the dark, and Sandberg uses this simple trick in a number of clever ways. Yes, it’s terrifying, but it’s also funny: In one standout scene, Rebecca’s hapless boyfriend is chased from the house to the driveway, repeatedly saving himself just in time with a series of light-emitting gadgets, from his cell phone to his car’s headlights. It amounts to a semi-visible slapstick routine. Sandberg has all of Wan’s gifts for engineering thrills and chills, but his sense of humor and feeling for the human subtext of the fright film might be what saves him from being a one-hit wonder.