What do you do if you have a strong idea for a short film but no funding to make it? You make it yourself at home, in your flat, with your wife. This is what David F. Sandberg did anyway. The concept of his story is very simple: Lotta Lotsen (the film director’s wife) switches off the lights and sees the silhouette of a terrifying naked woman. She puts the lights back on and sees nothing, but each time she switches the lights off the creature appears closer and closer…
The short film LIGHTS OUT (2:47 minutes) was released on VIMEO and YouTube in 2013. At the time, Sandberg and his wife had no idea that it would take them as far as it did. The couple loved ‘DIY filmmaking’ so much so they decided to make more short films such as: SEE YOU SOON (2014), NOT SO FAST (2014), ATTIC PANIC (2015) and CLOSET SPACE (2016).
Meanwhile, LIGHTS OUT (the short film) went viral online (reaching over 1 million views), was selected in film competitions and won best short film in 2014 at FRIGHT METER AWARDS. Hollywood producers could not resist. The feature film had to be made however at low cost with only a five million dollar budget. In 2015, Sandberg and his wife moved to L.A. to film the feature. In 2016, it was released under the same title: LIGHTS OUT. The pressure on Sandberg was enormous; making a film at home with your wife is far more comfortable than the Hollywood way of filming. Luckily, Sandberg managed to keep his sanity and his original vision in line. He avoided the pitfalls of the super-production machine and instead, created an intimate supernatural story.
Needless to say, all the fans of the short film went to watch the feature. And the pressure was on to not disappoint. Three minutes in, the scene with his wife from the short film is introduced. The fans rejoice.
The story hits the ground running. A boy called Martin (Gabriel Bateman) calls out for help after seeing his mum Sophie (Maria Bello) falling into deep depression and schizophrenia. Sophie seems to talk to someone or something hidden in a dark wardrobe. The problem is, this imaginary friend of hers, is not so imaginary when the lights are off and not a pleasure to see either: It’s a hairy, skinny, naked silhouette with extremely long fingers nails; her name is Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey).
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is the older sister that had left home a long time ago precisely because of her mother’s illness. She decides to get involved to help her little brother. In her mother’s home, Rebecca discovers that her stepfather (Billy Burke) was investigating his wife’s past before he was killed mysteriously. It appears that Sophie had a stay at a psychiatric hospital when she was young and it’s where she met Diana, a violent child with a rare skin condition (sensitive to light). Diana died tragically during a hospital experiment but seems to be brought back into life each time Sophie falls into depression.
LIGHTS OUT is the typical story tapping into the dark side of human beings. It’s not the first horror film on that subject and it won’t be the last either. From being physically possessed (The Exorcist) to paranoia (The Shining), horror movies utilize the same colour palette but in different tones. So it’s not surprising that Sandberg decides to associate his LIGHTS OUT with mental illness as an allegory for being the monster inside us that destroys and slowly ‘kills’ everyone around us.
The plot and the characterization are dead simple yet effective. After all, the audience turning up to watch a horror movie want only one thing: To jump out their seats. And on that, the film delivers. It’s not claustrophobic, morbid or gory but Sandberg’s less is more technique with minimal special effects creates a tension that builds up throughout the film.
All the old tricks you would expect from Horror movies are applied, such as the freaky creature, the use of darkness and shadows, the shrieking sounds, the vulnerable child, and the unavoidable scene in the basement. LIGHTS OUT may not be the scariest film or the most original, however it is well-directed, fast paced, efficient and most of all, entertaining. By making us think twice before turning our lights off, Sandberg, the ‘unknown’ Swedish filmmaker, managed to put all the lights on him.