Yesterday afternoon, my partner and I found ourselves with nothing to do on a dreary, rainy day and figured it was time to visit the local movie theater with our new flatmates and check out a movie we’ve been seeing lots of folks talking about recently: Lights Out.
Lights Out is a horror film directed by David F. Sandberg, best known for his non-budget horror films under the alias of “ponysmasher”. It tells the story of a blonde punk archetype named Rebecca and her half-brother, Martin, as they deal with a clinically depressed mother who seems to be conversing with an imaginary friend named Dianna. This imaginary friend has glowing white eyes and hates the light…
Before heading along to this movie, I had seen and heard a little bit about it. My first experience with this film came through one of those short TV spot-trailers. It came on one afternoon and showed a quick clip of the film, to which I remarked: “Well, that looks dumb.”
I fully did not intend to see the movie, until people online started raving about it, saying it had a solid story and was really quite scary. So I thought, "All right, I’ll swallow my pride and check it out, how bad can it be right?"
Well, let me tell you.
Beware, after this point, spoilers abound.
Lights Out, from the get-go, felt like it was written in an attempt to revive the early 2000s interest in Japanese horror films like The Ring and The Grudge. Put it this way, if they were still making the Scary Movie spoofs, this film would be a prime target for their next one. Eric Heisserer, who wrote the screenplay, has credits for other similar projects like the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Final Destination 5, so I guess the way Lights Out went is hardly unexpected if you know his track record.
For the most part, the film was pretty good. Within the first few minutes, I had, in my mind, established the kind of horror movie I was dealing with, and sat back to enjoy. We went through the usual tropes (which I have no issue with by the way): you had the initial death at the start to introduce the monster. Then we went to the sexy rocker chick protagonist before meeting her on-again off-again boyfriend, then her half-brother (who was a superb actor, by the way), and of course their manic mother.
How It Should Have Ended
Good God, the ending! I think, for me, it started to fall apart when they pulled out the black light and showed us the monster in all her skin-diseased glory. In both my articles that touch on ambiguity in horror (here and here), I have referenced Stephen King’s pseudo-academic book on the horror genre – Danse Macabre, and in particular, his thoughts on showing the monster.
King explains that if you open a door that has a monster standing behind it in a horror film/novel/show, you better be damn sure you are opening it at the right moment. Open it too late and the audience feels cheated, and they leave the theater saying “Hang on a minute, wasn’t that supposed to be a horror film?” Even worse, if you open it too early, the audience sees your monster, gasps initially, and then laughs in relief: “Well, that’s not too bad. I was expecting something way worse!”
The tension dissipates.
Lights Out unfortunately shows its monster too soon. For me, that was its first error. The film commits two more horror writing crimes, in my opinion.
Crime number 1: The Chandelier
The house in which Lights Out spends much of its time is a big dark building with a winding staircase. Suspended above the stairwell is a beautiful set piece - a large, glittering, crystal chandelier. This set piece spends quite a lot of time in front of the camera, considering it never actually gets used. Sitting in the film, my partner leant over to me near the beginning (where the chandelier was first displayed), laughed, pointed, and said knowingly – “That’s the hidden gun.”
A hidden gun is term used in the writing craft to describe a form of device that a writer will introduce near the beginning of the text, allow the audience to forget, before re-introducing it at the end to bring the plot to its close. Also known to many as Chekhov’s Gun, the concept comes from the famous playwright Anton Chekhov who wrote:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
My partner thought, upon seeing the chandelier, that that was the hidden gun for this story, and he’s right. It should have been. I mean think about it – you have a horror movie in which the central monster is sensitive to light, and you have a big, beautiful chandelier, an object that’s purpose is to have its crystals reflect the light. Well, you work it out.
In my humble opinion, you could have ended the movie (and the monsters’ life) with this set piece. Reflect light through the house with it somehow, or even send it crashing down on top of the monsters’ head. It was just too perfect of a hidden gun to not use, so it was a disappointment to see them ignore it in the end.
Crime number 2: Bye-bye Mommy
The way the writers chose to kill off their monster was to kill off the mother. This is a major error for several reasons. In fact, when it happened, I could hear the audience around me disengaging with the film. Their reasoning for killing the mum as a way to kill the monster was sparse at best. There were a couple of lines (I guess intended to be hidden guns) that the mother muttered to the ghost: “There is no you without me.”
The problem is that the film seems to, at this point, become confused about what kind of horror it is. For the most part of the film, it’s about a family. It’s about their relationships with each other and how they stand against the insidious force that is trying to tear them apart. It is, in a way, a family horror. It’s light-hearted in that sense. It doesn’t require any in-depth analysis; it hasn’t asked any deep questions or imposed an atmosphere of cosmic dread upon the audience. Therefore, the dark route of killing the mother feels like a betrayal to the audience. It’s more than we’ve signed up for, and not only does it seem like it’s bordering on a Deus ex Machina easy way out, it also tears at our empathy for the characters.
Obviously, somebody needed to die. It wouldn’t be a horror film without a death. My vote was to kill off Brett – the boyfriend. He was the most obvious choice for me as he was not part of the family unit and could be grieved and moved on from by the other characters. My interpretation would have been to kill him, save the mum, and destroy the ghost with the chandelier. Alternatively, if they absolutely HAD to kill the mum, then they needed to kill off everyone. If you're going to go dark, you may as well go the whole way. Otherwise, you end up with a strong first half of the film and a weak final act that has little effect on the psyche of the audience, which is exactly what happened with Lights Out.
Hollywood Just Doesn’t Get Horror
I mean, sure, they used to. Movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby will forever go down in history as some of the scariest films of all time. If you look at the slew of modern day horrors, you start to realize something.
All the best ones are independent.
All of them are independent. Indie filmmakers get horror, and this is probably because they don’t have the pressure that Hollywood film makers have to write a film with mass appeal and use dazzling special effects.
Hollywood Horrors’ problem is two-fold. Firstly, their drive to show the monster becomes overpowering due to the fact that they have a special effects budget. They become so caught up in having the ability to show us a ghost or a werewolf, that they forgot to ask whether, in fact, they should. Secondly, and more crucially, Hollywood writers have to really up the stakes to appeal to a mass market. This is what I’ve noticed in many big budget horrors including Lights Out. Big budget horror usually follows this formula:
1. Introduce the monster and kill somebody off
2. Introduce the protagonists and involve them with the monster
3. Build up the impossibility of the situation, and really push on how evil the monster is and how little of a chance the characters have of escaping it.
4. Realize that you’ve built it all up a bit too much, and now there’s no way to end it satisfactorily, save for killing everyone, so you use a cheesy Deus Ex Machina technique at the end to save the day and conclude your film.
Do you see the issue? Lights Out could have just been a simple horror movie, in which a family battles a monster that is connected to their mother's depression (as was brilliantly executed in 2014s’ The Babadook). Instead, they turned the monster into some kind of apocalyptic demon, and built the problem up to the point where they had to do something equally apocalyptic to conclude it. When they couldn’t quite find that end-of-the-world conclusion, they opted for something cheap and nasty to get them out quick.
If Hollywood could just grasp the concept of subtlety, then their horror films would excel, instead of constantly bombing. But hey, maybe that’s just the way things are. I mean, if Hollywood writers tried it my way, they’d probably end up not hitting mass-market appeal like they want to, they’ll probably piss off a studio exec or something and lose their jobs. Maybe, the home for horror fans in cinema will always, by its very nature be with the indie films. It would be great to finally see a big budget Hollywood horror that scares my socks off, but at the moment, I guess we can only hope.