'Lights Out' (2016): a study in contemporary American horror
What was the last good horror film you saw? Furthermore, what constitutes a good horror film? Did it scare you out of your seat? Were you up all night anxious of every movement in the dark? Did you need to constantly reaffirm to yourself that it was all just a movie?
To be sure, horror as a genre is as heterogeneous as any in terms of both narrative sub-genres as well as aesthetic compositions. This makes it difficult to judge objectively what is “good” and what is not because such a diverse genre allows for distinctive tastes within the genre to develop. Despite this, horror seems to be one of the few genres (along with big-budget action movies and romantic comedies) that has established a formulaic approach to making profitable films. This formula has only emerged within the past 15 to 20 years, but has developed to the point that almost every American horror film now uses it.
Exemplified by “Lights Out” (2016), the formula is fairly simple. First, start with a low budget. This allows for films to position themselves easily for a high return on investment. “Lights Out,” for example, cost under $5 million to make and has raked in over $60 million at the box office since its release.
To achieve a low budget, contemporary horror filmmakers employ actors with less experience and name recognition whom they can pay smaller salaries. This can work extremely well in films that play up the “real” aesthetic (i.e. “Paranormal Activity”, “The Blair Witch Project”) but in films like “Lights Out,” which follows the story of a deadly ghost that haunts a broken family from the shadows, it can expose subpar acting. Teresa Palmer, who plays an estranged daughter, and Gabriel Bateman, her younger brother in the film, both turn in unconvincing performances. Likewise, Alexander DiPersia, who plays Palmer’s love interest, also tops out at average at best. Maria Bello, on the other hand, shines in an otherwise less than exemplary cast. Her character, Sophie, is the one who allows the ghost, Diana, an old “friend” from her childhood days at a mental asylum, to antagonize her family. Bello captures the warped perspective of an aged matriarch going off the deep end rivaling the stunning work of Essie Davis in “The Babadook” (2015). The sense of psychosis plays through strikingly well in her performance.
The low budget also has aesthetic consequences on the film. One way this manifests itself is through the use of lighting — or lack thereof. The current trend tends to be away from well-lit spaces, using darkness and even sometimes blackness instead. This cuts down lighting costs and can work extremely well when used properly, as in “The Descent.” Similarly, the lighting choices play well in this film. Director David F. Sandberg presents the thematic concept of the dark as a place for evil but fails to produce much more than jump scares.
“Lights Out” follows the contemporary horror formula to a tee and as a result, the mainstream public has widely regarded it as an example of a “good” horror film. The worry, however, is that the current bubble in low- and micro-budget American horror leaves us with films that sacrifice important aspects of cinema like acting, set design and concept and replaces them with the artifice of the jump scare.
My biggest issue with this film, and with the status of contemporary American horror as a whole, is the blatant lack of originality. “Lights Out” plays through a story that has been told a million times and did nothing unique or innovative within the field. Yes, it utilizes tropes of the genre, but the uninspired production somewhat waters down the effectiveness. I couldn’t help but think to myself that the slasher film series “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Halloween” each respectively produced a more innovative, compelling and creative product throughout volumes of films while essentially relying on a formulaic approach. Those films did not skimp on their budgets to ensure a return on investment, but rather they invested in hopes of creating a unique and immersive product that would continually draw audiences back. Limiting economic parameters are at the root of this problem in contemporary horror films. Low budget products are the new norm and as the norm, these productions also bring a new set of standards for horror.
I don’t mean to accuse “Lights Out” of being a bad film only to question what makes it “good” within the context of the paradigm of contemporary American horror. The film provides a lot of jump scares and a few genuinely creepy scenes. A tight running time of just over 80 minutes also keeps the pace fast and the audience engaged.