In the concluding essay of his collection of sinister and macabre short stories Night Music: Nocturnes 2, John Connolly proposed that the brevity of that form was the ideal vehicle for horror, establishing the atmosphere and crucial event without the extended narrative of the novel which requires investigation, analysis and resolution. Whereas science fiction is the genre of illumination, of working things out and explaining them, horror works best in the dark, preferring the lights to be kept out.
Released just over two years ago, the horror short Lights Out lasted two and a half minutes and racked up several million hits online, a simple but effective slap in the face from something hiding in the shadows of a modern flat, creeping closer to the woman who hid terrified under the covers of her bed. Directed by David F Sandberg and starring his wife Lotta Losten, that success has led to a full length expansion of the concept with Sandberg surprisingly invited to make his feature debut as director.
As effective as the short was, it is a flimsy premise upon which to build a feature, and rather than simply playing out that one scene in different variations across multiple locations screenwriter Eric Heisserer (The Thing, the forthcoming Arrival) wisely approaches the subject from a different direction, the short film replayed in a darkened warehouse for the opening scene, Losten recreating her original function before handing over to her manager Paul (a brief supporting role for Twilight‘s Billy Burke), a family man whose domestic situation is far from cosy.
Moving forward several years, Paul’s stepdaughter Rebecca (Warm Bodies‘ Teresa Palmer) is a fiercely independent woman, refusing to let anyone close to her, though whether for her own protection or theirs is unclear. She has been dating Bret (Alexander DiPersia) for eight months yet he is still not allowed to stay over or leave so much as a sock in her flat.
Rebecca’s relationship with her mother is more strained, Sophie (The 5th Wave‘s Maria Bello) having suffered from depression her whole life, living in a fortress of perpetual gloom, the shades drawn in every room, a metaphor for the shadow cast across her life and her family by her illness. Living with her is her youngest child, Martin (Annabelle‘s Gabriel Bateman), in trouble at school for falling asleep in class because he is afraid to sleep at home because there is something hiding in the dark, the person his mother talks to in the dark.
The most basic of fears, something hiding in the dark, something lurking under the bed waiting to grab a dangling limb, there is much here of two episodes of Doctor Who, Blink (“Blink and you’re dead!”), Silence in the Library (“Count the shadows and stay in the light!”) but also Listen and Eduardo Sánchez’ Lovely Molly, a presence lurking just out of sight but always present in the disturbed mind, though Sandberg’s casting and sympathetic eye for character successfully carry what is undeniably a slight storyline.
At the core is Rebecca, her relationship (not that she would allow it to be called such) with the patient Bret sweet and believable while her devotion to Martin is a double edged sword, forcing her to deal with her mother whom she avoids and all the anger and resentment that carries. Both Bello and Bateman are excellent, she quietely desperate and afraid to turn to anyone for help lest they become trapped into her fate but never lapsing into histrionics, he intelligent, reasonable and resigned to his fate, a child aged beyond his years by growing up in a house where mental illness is the norm.
The backstory given to the apparently primal force of rage which haunts the family arrives somewhat too swiftly and too easily and is undeniably conceived for hokey convenience, but with a swift and sensible eighty one minute runtime Sandberg knows not to labour his points and never requires any character to act with egregious stupidity as so often happens in horror, and despite having played his trump card in the opening scene still manages to craft creepy tension, particularly as Rebecca descends through the darkened house by blacklight.