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Being afraid of the dark is a familiar childhood anxiety that has exploited in terrifying proportions in the horror genre. “Lights Out” knows how to cash in on the panic that can assail the mind when the lights go out. Bad things happen in darkness and “Lights Out” lays it on thick, even though the story is set in Southern California, which is drenched in megawatts of sunshine.

This is a debut feature by David F. Sandberg who based “Lights Out” on his own, identically titled (and themed) three-minute short from 2013. A much splashier name on the credits, though, is James Wan as producer. According to the production notes, Wan — the man who wrote and directed the first “Saw,” and went on to give horror fans such notables as “Insidious,” “Dead Silence” and “The Conjuring” — supervised much of the proceedings for “Lights Out.” For all that, “Lights Out” is a strangely understated affair. Fans of the genre may go in ready to scream their heads off, but will likely come out relatively serene.

What happened? A desired PG-13 rating, that’s what. In a bid to reach a wider audience, we end up with a really compelling storyline but with huge chunks of plot detail and scare factor taken out so as to accommodate the preteen audience.

Lights Out (Lights Off)
Rating
Run Time 81 mins
Language English
Opens AUG 27

Having gotten that gripe off my chest, on to the movie. Funnily enough, understated actually works for about 70 percent of the film’s 81-minute run. It kicks off with an office scene in a mannequin factory (always a sign that you’re about to be terrorized). The owner of the company is Paul (Billy Burke), who is taking a break from working late and having an online chat with his young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman).

From their conversation, we glean that mom Sophie (Maria Bello) is having mental health problems and has shut herself in the bedroom, talking to herself. Paul promises to be home soon , but as he’s leaving, he sees a shadow of someone or something crouching on the floor of the parking lot. When he turns the lights on, the shadow disappears. Lights off, it’s there again. He grabs a baseball bat to defend himself and runs back inside the office. Martin never gets to see his dad again.

The perpetrator in “Lights Out” has a fear of light. It’s at its most menacing after sundown, or when it’s lurking in the darkest corner of a room. It seems to reside in Sophie’s closet, and comes out at night to rattle the doorknob to Martin’s room, crawl along the rug and get under his bed. Martin is too scared to sleep and so he seeks help from his estranged half-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who lives in town and is initially wary of returning to the family circle. Upon hearing her kid brother’s story, however, she changes her mind and confronts their mother, whom she suspects is being victimized by her own demon and spinning out of control — a situation Rebecca experienced as a child when she lived with her.

“Lights Out” is masterful at building ambience and the contrasting light and dark visuals would have delighted Junichiro Tanizaki (author of “In Praise of Shadows”). But when it comes to developing characters and making sense of their actions, it falters.

As with most horror movies, characters make the most egregious decisions, which include drawing all the curtains in the house in the daytime when everyone knows the creature feeds on darkness, and wandering into darkened hallways and Martin’s room, which are only lit by a feeble vintage lamp or two.

Most disturbing of all is Sophie, who really should have gotten a gym membership, started gardening or something that would have gotten her out of that house. When she suggests to Martin that they spend some “personal time together” with popcorn and a movie, she puts on something from old Hollywood instead of Disney, and starts to talk about her dark past.

Apologies for the pun, but this begs to be said: Someone should have told Sophie long ago to “lighten up.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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