What you CAN see can hurt you in “Lights Out”

You know how it is when you are in a darkened environment. Your eyes play tricks on you. What you think you see really is not there. Right? Right?

This unnerving concept was explored in a film short in 2013 of 2 minutes, 41 seconds titled “Lights Out” by David Sandberg. It was posted on YouTube and has had almost 1.3 million views and an overwhelming thumbs-up vs. thumbs-down tally — 6446 to 346.

Given a green light to turn this short into a full-length film, Sandberg enlisted the writing help of Eric Heisserer (“Final Desitnation 5”) to expand the story. The result is a well-crafted chiller of a movie.

Running a spare 81 minutes, “Lights Out” uses the time economy to get the story told and does not insult the viewer with cheap, fake scares.

“Lights Out” centers around a young woman, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer from “Grudge 2” and the remake of “Point Break”), who is drawn back into a unsettling situation of an unstable mother when she learns her half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is experiencing the same night terrors that haunted her as a child. These chilling visions seem to be linked to a sort of “invisible” friend of their mother Sophie (Maria Bello), a woman struggling with depression.

Dealing with the guilt that she abandoned her emotionally fragile mother, Rebecca is obligated to come to Martin’s aid and provide comfort. But soon she discovers that the hauntings she and Martin endured are more than just a manifestation of some possible inherited psychological disorder.

There indeed is a real entity that has somehow attached itself to Sophie’s shaky existence, but it only can thrive when the lights are out.

Aided by her boyfriend wannabe Bret (Alexander DiPersia), the kind of guy one suspects might be a choke artist when the going gets nasty, Rebecca uncovers the real story, only to have Sophie deeply entrenched in denial.

“Lights Out” taps into the natural fears of what is going on in the dark, the vulnerabilities that come with limited visual stimulation and how the mind can go into overdrive with worst-case scenarios. The movie lets the darkness do its job. No need for excessive bumps and creaking. No cats leaping out from nowhere.

Palmer is the key character here, presenting Rebecca as a woman who discovers an inner strength that had been dormant as she sought ways to avoid unpleasantness. Bateman’s Martin is basically a good kid, low-key and despite his mother’s failings, totally devoted to her. He also manages to keeps his wits about him despite the dangers.

DiPersia’s Bret turns out to be a bit of a surprise, a seemingly one-dimensional character who very easily could have been a liability amid the terror.

Lotta Losten, who was the lone character in the short film (which still can been viewed on YouTube), sort of reprises her role in the longer version as the light-switcher, shaken up by what she sees when indeed the lights are out.

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“The Girl in the Photographs” has a significant place in the history of horror movies. It was the last film the late Wes Craven was involved with, serving as executive producer, before his death on Aug. 30, 2015 of brain cancer.

Also of note is that one of the co-writers of the script, along with Robert Norast and Nick Simon, is Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson. And veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey provided his skills.

Sadly, “The Girl in the Photographs,” despite an interesting premise, is ultimately disappointing. Too bad because the main character, Colleen (Claudia Lee), had the potential to be great Final Girl.

The problem is that the movie veers off course with too much attention to another character, a famous photographer named Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn), whose narcissism and sarcasm, while initially are amusing, grow old. Yeah, we get it. He is a self-absorbed jerk with a smart mouth. Let’s move on.

Colleen is a bored young woman, working in a store in the sleepy town of Spearfish (population 10, 494) whose otherwise mundane existence is marred by someone who targets her as the recipient of grisly photographs of murdered women. Trouble is, they’re only photographs and could be fake killings, given the advancement of practical special effects that can make brutal violence look very real.

But the victims are real. Katharine Isabelle (“Ginger Snaps,” “American Mary” and TV’s “Hannibal”) as Janet is one of them.

Colleen’s dealings with Sheriff Porter (Mitch Pileggi) as she reports these photos prove frustrating because there are no bodies — the script conveniently does not address the issue of maybe somebody reporting that Janet (and others) is missing.

Another failing is that the killers are revealed early in the movie. They are two guys who seem to have no job but drive around town in a blood-red pickup with bull horns as a hood ornament. Tom is the brains of the operation while his cohort is a growling neanderthal with a shaved head. Tom (Luke Baines) is a thin, pale guy who could be a poster boy for the low-key, socially inept person who focuses his energy on working out his rage in brutal ways.

And so, with the baddies known, it would have been nice to explore a little more what makes these guys tick.

Colleen catches the eye of Hemmings, who wants to sign her up to model for his photos, but before she and Hemmings’ entourage can pick up and leave Spearfish, they are are holed up in a house — another convenient plot device — where the killers can do their work.

Then, as the Final Girl, Colleen severely disappoints.

The movie feels like it was meant just to be the first in a series of movies, with Tom becoming yet another icon of mayhem. Trouble is, by the time “The Girl in the Photographs” snaps its last picture, it’s hard to care about any of it.

So, let’s just forget that this was a swan song for Craven. Thankfully, his treasure of classic horror films makes it easy to dismiss he was involved in this misfire.

 

 

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