Lights, Not Out, but Colored
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It is a truism of cinematography that film is a medium in which one sculpts light. No film this year plays as effectively with the implications of illumination, not only for image, but also narrative construction than the horror film, Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016). The film concerns Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a tattoo artist traumatized by the death of her father and subsequent upraising by her mentally ill mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie is in a co-dependent relationship with her childhood friend, Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), turned into a demonic spirit as the result of an electroshock treatment gone horribly wrong in a mental asylum. The plot of Lights Out follows Rebecca’s attempts to protect her younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) from Diana’s increasingly murderous spirit.
However, as an experimental narrative about the nature of illumination, Lights Out transcends the horror genre. Given its obsession with the cinematic, the film also reads as an allegory of film history. Shot in Los Angeles, the film is interested in the horrors that await those who are not illuminated, who cannot shine like the stars. The people unlucky enough to fall into the shadows are all murdered by Diana.
The film develops its play with light in a way that recapitulates the history of Hollywood. In the opening sequence, Sophie’s husband, Paul (Billy Burke) is working late at night in a mannequin factory. After his assistant goes missing, having been killed by Diana, Paul wanders onto the factory floor, which is mostly dark except for bright white circular pools directly below the ceiling lights. Paul begins to learn Diana’s secret, that she can only function in the dark, but his realization comes too late: she grabs him from the shadows, dragging him to his death into the blackness surrounding the island of light in which he was desperately cowering. While shot in color, the film at this moment effectively retreats to black and white, where the stark contrast between the white pools of light and the surrounding darkness are the only facets of the image that matter, both aesthetically and narratively.
A few minutes later, while sleeping in her bedroom above her tattoo parlor, Rebecca’s first encounter with Diana involves not black and white, but the color red. The sign outside the building, advertising the tattoo business flashes red light on and off. When the lights are out, Diana can move toward Rebecca, but when the red light comes on, she is stopped dead in her tracks. The sequence is most reminiscent of the end of Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang’s 1945 film noir in which Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) attempts to hang himself over the guilt of having murdered the femme fatale, Kitty (Joan Bennett). As the suicidal Chris wanders his apartment, the flashing neon sign outside of his window bathes the set in chiaroscuro lighting. Lang’s film is in glorious black and white: its invocation of blood occurs only in its title, which promises the very street will run red with blood. Lights Out literalizes Scarlet Street, bathing the image in saturated reds.
In the middle of the film, Martin asks his mother if they can have a movie night together. Sophie agrees, but says it will be for “all three of us,” that is, with Diana joining them. In the middle of watching a classical Hollywood melodrama, Sophie pauses the DVD, bathing the set of Lights Out in the white light that dominates the set of the film on the television screen. Sophie tells the story of Diana to Martin so that he will understand, and allows the ghost to come to meet Martin for the first time. However, Diana is an evil demon, and attacks Sophie; Martin barely escapes the house to safety. Mom and son never get to finish watching the movie; its white glow quickly disappears from the visual design of Lights Out.
Finally, at the film’s end, Rebecca and Martin are trapped in the basement of Sophie’s house by Diana. Finding a black light in the family’s Halloween supplies, Rebecca searches for a tool with which to defeat Diana. The images in the basement are bathed in blue light, the result of her wielding the black light, misnamed: the device actually produces ultraviolet hues; in this case those hues are ultraviolent as well. Lights Out thus ends with a modern form of illumination technology, most familiar from crime drama television shows, where the black light is used to illuminate the evidence of wrongdoing, that which cannot be seen in the visible spectrum.
Lights Out thus recapitulates the history of Hollywood, moving from black-and-white to films noirs to contemporary crime shows. Along the way, it pauses at the maternal melodrama, which proves the solution to the plot: Sophie must learn to be a good mother and sacrifice herself for her children. However, it is the visual design of the film, not its horror plot, which commends it. It is a film that raises fundamental questions about how and why films sculpt light. It is one of the most beautiful, illuminating films of 2016.
A long-time member of the editorial board, Walter Metz is the editor of the monthly film and television reviews feature of Film Criticism. He is a professor in the Department of Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.