'Lights Out' turns scary short into a truly spooky experience

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

With one simple but relatively ingenious idea, director David F. Sandberg executed his short film "Lights Out," a true creeper that manages to be nightmare-inducing at a runtime of just two minutes and 42 seconds.

The concept was simple and familiar. A woman getting ready to retire to bed flips off a hallway light switch. When the light goes out, she sees the silhouette of a scraggly-haired figure in the hallway. When she flips the light back on, it disappears. She repeats until it is suddenly terrifyingly close.

It was basically like the viral Ninja Cat video, only horrifying instead of adorable.

The praise for this (eventually viral) short got Sandberg the attention of director/producer James Wan ("The Conjuring") and an eventual greenlight for a $5 million feature. And all he did with that $5 million is make one of the best major studio horror flicks in recent memory.

The simple fear-of-the-dark visual premise gets a full story in the feature-length "Lights Out." Young Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is still coping with the mysterious death of his father - which plays out in a truly creepy opening sequence - when a new cause for fear takes hold. His mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), is spending her evenings seemingly talking to herself … or an unknown presence. (Spoiler: It's an unknown presence.)

When Martin's resulting sleepless nights lead to him falling asleep in class, his situation comes to the attention of his older sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Rebecca is estranged from their mother, but indications Sophie is unfit to care for Martin transform Rebecca and her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) into reluctant caretakers.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer injects this family drama with a clever twist: It's the mother, not the child, with a seemingly imaginary friend. It gives "Lights Out" some of the same maternal fears that made the indie "The Babadook" one of the best horror films of the last decade.

Meanwhile Sandberg turns his visual one-trick pony into a taut 80-minute feature that is effectively terrifying. Bello is a key cog in this machine, as Sophie's connection to the figure lurking in the dark comes into focus. Young Bateman is terrifically wide-eyed, and Palmer is an effective heroine; even some cheesy interplay with her boyfriend just evokes '80s horror flicks.

"Lights Out" is also probably best enjoyed in a theater, riding on the screams and jumps of those around you. And since it obviously requires that darkness to work, it's even scarier when you can't just run over and flip on the lights.

"Lights Out"

Opens Thursday

3 ½ stars out of 4