A couple years ago, a friend of mine told me about this creepy little short film called “Lights Out“. There wasn’t much in terms of character development or plot, but the short film did have a nifty little gimmick at the center of it. It’s not an easy thing to describe, the conceit is so clever and so visually intensive that it really has to be seen instead of heard about.

Imagine my surprise to find that director David F. Sandberg was expanding his own short film into feature length, under the wing of modern horror maestro James Wan. Even after watching the trailer, I was skeptical that this could work as a feature film. And it really didn’t.

I mean, I get how it works in theory. Fear of the dark is a deeply primal phobia, and exploiting that in such a unique way could potentially make for some good horror. Furthermore, light isn’t always a reliable source of comfort. Fire burns out, light bulbs break, batteries go dead, power breakers blow, and so on. There’s a lot of good suspense to be found in that.

Unfortunately, though Sandberg has a long and impressive list of short films to his name, the debut feature director shows his inexperience here. The horror is way too heavily reliant on jump scares, every single one of which is accompanied by a deafening musical sting. The atmosphere is there, but it’s completely undone by a total lack of subtlety.

This extends to the characters as well. Our de facto protagonist is played by Theresa Palmer, her little half-brother is played by Gabriel Bateman, and her kinda-sorta boyfriend is played by Alexander DiPersia. All three of these characters are razor thin, their performances are bland, and their incredibly stupid decisions are motivated pretty much entirely by the plot. Put simply, the characters are so unbelievable and so unsympathetic that the horror completely fails to land.

There are some exceptions, however. Billy Burke plays the opening victim and he at least has enough presence to hold the screen. There’s also Lotta Losten, star of the original short film, who gets a sweet little cameo role at the opening.

(Side note: The Justice League should probably be listed among the supporting cast as well. There was no shortage of product placement regarding the DC stable of superheroes.)

But the undisputed champion of this cast has to be Maria Bello. As the mentally unstable mother of our two main characters, the linchpin of the entire plot, and easily the most experienced actor in the cast, Bello goes way farther on better material than everyone else put together. Bello thoroughly commits to the role, and her heartbreaking portrayal of a mother torn apart by her own insanity is worthy of a much better film. Which makes it all the more regrettable that when we finally learn what’s going on and why the monster is tormenting this family, Bello’s character comes out looking like the most unforgivably stupid character in the whole film.

The premise of a broken family is pretty much all the film has to offer in terms of an emotional hook. And the mystery of a secret past full of death and trauma is the main thrust of the plot. That’s not much to go on. It’s threadbare and clichéd stuff, especially because — again — I just couldn’t bring myself to give a damn about the characters.

At only 81 minutes, Lights Out doesn’t exactly overstay its welcome. And at that running time, it barely qualifies as a feature film at all. The central horror gimmick is great fun to watch at times, and Maria Bello puts in a fantastic performance, but that’s not enough to sustain anything more than a short film. Especially when these filmmakers can’t present any main characters worth watching, a plot that isn’t driven forward by stupid decisions, and any scares without over-the-top music.

Stick to the original short film and give this one a pass.

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