Lights Out Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello. Directed by David F. Sandberg. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
Like Patrick Jean’s “Pixels,” David F. Sandberg’s “Lights Out” is a dialogue-free, ultra-short (a little over two minutes) film that went viral online a few years ago and led to a feature-film deal. Unlike Jean, Sandberg got to direct the feature based on his short, and he didn’t have to cast Adam Sandler in the lead role. But “Lights Out” is similarly tough to adapt to feature length, with the simple, straightforward hook of the short losing its impact over the course of 80 minutes. Still, Sandberg proves that he’s decent at creating scares, and audiences just looking for a handful of jump moments might find Lights Out satisfactory.
Everything around those moments is pretty weak, though, with screenwriter Eric Heisserer struggling to build a story around the single basic scare of Sandberg’s short. The image of a mysterious entity that only appears when lights are turned off, getting closer each time, is undeniably creepy, and Sandberg and Heisserer find a handful of clever variations on it over the course of the movie. The exposition-heavy back story for why such an entity is targeting depressed mother Sophie (Maria Bello), her adult daughter Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is less effective, and its abrupt resolution ends up cutting off any potential larger themes. That’s not a problem in a two-minute short, but a feature needs something beyond brief periodic jolts of fear.