Recently, I took a trip to the theater to see Lights Out, the horror film currently sitting at an admirable for the genre 78% on Rotten Tomatoes. In a world where Batman can punch an abuse victim for laughs and the number one movie for the last two weeks uses rape as a quirky plot twist, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at how appallingly tone-deaf this Lights Out was, despite its positive reception. But instead of exploring chick flicks as legitimate genre films, this week, I want to take a piece of genre cinema and talk about just how grossly misogynistic and stupid it is.

LIGHTS OUT
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Key Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello, Alexander DiPersia

In Short
Sophie, a wife and mother with a past history of bipolar disorder, begins struggling with her disease again, spending a lot of time in her closet or in the dark, mumbling to unseen company. Her husband, trying to look into her past in search of answers, gets killed one night at work by a shadow monster. This monster begins terrorizing Martin, Sophie’s son. He tries to get help from his estranged adult half-sister, Rebecca, who experienced the same problems as a child. The monster, a spectral woman named Diana, is a deceased from of Sophie’s from her time as a preteen living in a mental institution. Diana, who in life possessed a skin condition that kept her from being in the light, is jealous and wants Sophie to stay ill so that she can occupy her mind. She haunts the shadows of Sophie’s home, and Martin and Rebecca have to fight to save their mother. Unfortunately, they can’t, and Sophie kills herself to spare her children.

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The Horror
Lights Out began with what seems to be the best of intentions. A metaphor for depression, it really gave the appearance of showing how the disease affects not only the afflicted, but entire families. The first half was colored with shades of The Babadook, last year’s excellent foray into grief and parental guilt. But instead, it got lost in crafting clever, unmotivated jump scares to the point where it ends up destroying any and all good intentions by ending with the message “sometimes, suicide is the answer,” but only after reminding us again and again that hysterical women need men to save the day.

So, let’s start with the end and work backward. Sophie chooses to kill herself because it is the only solution for saving her family. Depression is a disease that loves to spread that lie — but it’s just that, a lie. When people die by suicide, it’s not a choice in the way Sophie’s was. It’s the end of a long, hard battle with a brutal illness that still carries with it a stigma — particularly for women. This movie effectively reinforced the lies depression plants in the brain, that loved ones would be better off without the depressed person, so even though Diana might be gone, her specter remains over the audience. That’s worse than a typical horror movie jump scare tag. With a little more thought and a lot less devotion to cool moments, Lights Out could have transcended its genre to really say something. Instead, it perpetuated the problem it was purporting to solve.

In the same vein, Diana was, at one point in the film’s timeline, a real teen-aged girl struggling with some serious mental and physical health problems. She was shocked to death by doctors. Sohpie was her only friend. The movie paints her devotion to Sophie as psychotic, but never explains when it turned from perfectly understandable within that context to completely deranged. It’s just assumed that of course a sick young woman would turn into a crazy jealous ghost. I mean, duh, amirite? A piece is missing in explaining Diana’s behavior, especially since she initially seems perfectly fine with Sophie’s children. It’s the adult men that she, understandably, does not trust.

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Those adult men — two of Sophie’s husbands and Rebecca’s almost-boyfriend — are all portrayed as noble victims. They care so much that they are willing to sacrifice themselves to the disease without ever bothering to speak to Sophie or find her agency in any of this. They dehumanize her and assume she’s incapable of decision-making rather than dig to find the woman still in there, fighting for her life and her children. Similarly, Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret steamrolls her wishes to continue living a single life and remain uncommitted. It’s clear from the artwork on her walls she still carries scars from her childhood, but he insists, and eventually she relents, because of course she does. Every women, when facing hysteria, needs a man to light her way. And those that don’t accept men’s help become hateful monsters, deserving only our scorn.

Lights Out was based on the director’s previous short — a thrilling visual exercise. Instead of hiring a female screenwriter to flesh out the female voices, paint-by-numbers extraordinaire Eric Heisserer, of such gems as The Thing and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes, was brought on to lend his special brand of pedantry. Now, I know a studio isn’t going to take a massive risk on some new writer, especially when the director is also fresh and untested, but after the last two banner years for female-driven horror, couldn’t they have sprung for someone more interesting? It’s frustrating to see such a fascinating premise flushed down the drain by the status quo.

If you’re looking for awesome lady movies that will make you scream or cry or sleep with the lights on, might I suggest the following instead:
It Follows, You’re Next, The Final Girls, the tragically underrated Jennifer’s Body, Black Rock, The Witch, Under the Skin, Cabin in the Woods, the not-really-horror-but-still-thrilling The Guest, the classic Alien, and of course, The Babadook. This list is far from comprehensive, but anything has to be better than Lights Out.

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