Good horror is so rare that fans veritably go gaga when an effective film lands. Thus, the look of ecstatic satisfaction on my face as I walked out of Swedish-born filmmaker David Sandberg's ultra-creepy feature debut,
A well-shot, gore-free psychological thriller about our elemental fear of darkness, Lights Out has a good deal in common with The Babadook. While it can't touch Jennifer Kent's masterpiece, it does mark the arrival of a major new talent.
Maria Bello stars as Sophie, an unstable mother of two whose obsessive love for her imaginary friend Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) has alienated her kids, the depressive black-clad rocker chick Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and Martin (Gabriel Bateman), a remarkably good-natured innocent.
But are they delusions? Diana, a shadowy monster with wild flowing black hair, long sinewy arms, and sharp claws, does appear in the flesh - but only when there's total darkness. Is she a real person, or at least a real entity?
One thing's for sure: Diana likes to kill people who love her galpal, and she quickly dispatches Sophie's husband, Paul (Billy Burke), in the film's only gory scene. When the spectral being goes after Martin, his big sister steps in to save the day.
Touched at every point by paranoia and hallucinatory despair, Sandberg's tightrope plotline is driven by a breathless hysteria that never quite goes away. It's not hard to divine that Bello and her daughter both have a deep-seated fear of men. (One keeps expecting Miss Havisham to show up.)
The few men in the film are subordinate to their mates (or dead). Rebecca's sensitive beau, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), for one, is a useful lad when there's heavy lifting to be done and who asks for little in return. He's awfully patient with his gal's inability to refer to him as her boyfriend and her refusal to let him keep a change of clothes at her pad.
Sandberg uses music sparingly, and he spares us from the indignity of jump scares. When he sets out to frighten you, he means it.
sss (Out of four stars)
yDirected by David Sandberg. With Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey. Distributed by Warner Bros.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 21 mins.
yParent's guide: PG-13 (terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material, and brief drug content).
yPlaying at: Area theaters.