Lights Out

Gabriel Bateman and Teresa Palmer try to keep things bright as they battle a spookWarner Bros. Pictures

‘Lights Out’
David F. Sanberg
Stars: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

For an 81-minute summer horror movie based on a three-minute short, “Lights Out” gets an A for effort. It tries very, very hard to be original, even good. It has a novel hook, one so specific it’s amazing no one’s done it before: It’s a ghost movie (sort of), where the evil spirit can only be seen — and can only attack — when the lights are off. It features real actors, who are playing real people. It deals with mental illness with a frankness that’s disarming, even had this been a straight-up serious drama. It even offers a realistic (or realistic-ish) explanation for its baddie that forgoes the usual supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

If anything it tries too hard, resulting in a nerve-jangler that’s both smart and deeply silly. At first it simply seems like an expert spookfest, one to be cherished for its disciplined direction. David F. Sanberg, who helmed the original short, kicks things off with a pre-credits freak-out, introducing an otherworldly menace that is usually only seen as a vague silhouette rocking long black hair out of an old J-horror entry. Should its prey fail to keep things bright, they’ll be turned into a mess of tangled flesh — a gruesome feat that, unlike in “The Conjuring” films, doesn’t summon a swarm of hungry demonologists or, apparently, suspicions of foul play.

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Instead things stay contained, focused one dysfunctional family. Teresa Palmer is perhaps undeservedly good as Rebecca, a 20-something loner into metalcore and also into not talking to her sickly mom Sophie (Maria Bello), who’s gone wildly off her meds. Rebecca worries about her kid brother (Gabriel Bateman), who lives at home, where their mother has suddenly been talking to an unseen presence in her bedroom closet. Soon both siblings are being haunted by the same entity, which likes to rattle knobs, scrape against doors and make sinister lunges at them before someone flips a light switch.

“Lights Off” was produced by “The Conjuring”’s James Wan, and you can tell: Sanberg indulges in the same yen for creeping dollies-in and off-screen menace, preferring old school practical scares over digitized cheats. When it comes to ways his heroes can turn on the lights, he’s witty and resourceful: Light sources include car lights, cell phone screens, furnaces, giant black light rods and — in a possible nod to the climax of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” — a candle carried slowly across a room, forever about to blow out.

Sanberg and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer could have gotten away with it, too, but they get too cocky. Once we get to the ghoul’s bizarre backstory, the movie threatens to collapse into ridiculous stupidity. But it’s best not to take this too literally, much as it wants you to. You’re better off reading the villain as a manifestation of Sophie’s ailment, a la the midgets sprung from one divorced woman’s damaged psyche in David Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” You might not think it would go all the way with this, and yet it does, with an ending that’s at the very least questionable. But since the characters feel real, not mere flesh for the beast, instead it really hurts.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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