It goes without saying that horror, strictly speaking, is not among cinema’s most expansive genres. Most times, it’s as conservative and formulaic as porn, and its requisite elements are as familiar as a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
But certainly, within the category of scary movies, there is room to move. Some horror films are like an amusement park, mechanical but titillating; many of them are as carnal and precisely grotesque as an autopsy; some are boiled in the biblical evil of the Old Testament; and yet others are atmospheric and dreadful, seeking to drive your fear inward toward the deeper ruts of suspicion and paranoia.
Lights Out, the feature-film debut of David F. Sandberg, belongs distinctly in the amusement-park category of horror. It is, frame by frame, a fright fest, and it goes about its business of making you jump with the orthodox devotion and ritualized aplomb of a nun on Sabbath. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
As ghost stories go, Lights Out couldn’t be more routine and economical (the film clocks in at just 81 minutes): Sophie (Maria Bello) is an isolated and mentally unstable mother raising her young son (Gabriel Bateman as Martin) alone in a big, spooky house in L.A. The two of them are stalked in the dark by a jealous, murderous specter — the same specter that once terrorized Sophie’s older daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a grungy twentysomething with a serious case of attachment disorder.
When Rebecca learns that her little brother is in peril, she returns home to confront this specter, a sort of Edward Gorey-looking black ghoul forever materializing in the shadows and disappearing in the light.
The film contains more jumps and jerks than a Taser demo, and in this it well satisfies the rudest obligations of the genre. No opportunity to startle is wasted, and Sandberg’s direction is swift and sophisticated enough to keep the frights from feeling completely cold and mercenary. It’s a rollercoaster, sure, but a really good one.
What really elevates Lights Out above the lumpen slew of cheaper offerings in the fright game, however, is the cast. Bello, who plays broken as well as anyone in Hollywood, is excellent as a ravaged mother torn between the sick narcissism of her solitude and her maternal instinct to protect her children.
As a daughter grieving the loss of her childhood and resentful over her filial abandonment by a mother with an unhealthy attachment to the supernatural, Palmer is a fierce secular force; she wears her fear and anger like armor, and the complicated emotions that play across the bitten features of her Raphaelite face give the movie a depth it would otherwise lack.
It’s been a good couple of years for scary movies, and Lights Out — though hardly in the same league as, say, The Babadook or this year’s best movie, The Witch — fits neatly into a trend that seems to be speaking to a lot of horror directors these days. That trend is just an anxious, Freudian honing of the ancient idea that the sins of the father are visited upon the son; moms and daughters are not immune. This movie only skirts the jittery surface of this maternal anxiety, but it does so with an urgency that’s undeniable. (Regal Valley River, Cinemark 17, opens Friday, Aug. 19, at Broadway Metro)