Lights Out (2013)

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Scary movie!
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Sweden / 2½ minutes / color / David Sandberg Dir & Pr & Scr & Cine: David Sandberg Cast: Lotta Losten.

Many, many years ago I read the complete ghost stories of M.R. James in a single splurge—I was in bed with some minor illness. Aside from scaring myself near-senseless, I learnt something about the art of storytelling: that sometimes less is more. (Nowadays I’d regard that as a cliché, but it was new to me then.) Some of the most effective stories in the collection were among the simplest, tales stripped right down to the bare minimum.

My favorite, which I can still remember clearly to this day (although, oddly, I can’t recall its title), has a man slouching in his comfy armchair and idly stroking his faithful old dog on the floor beside him as he reads.

It’s only after a while that he remembers he doesn’t have a dog any longer—his faithful old chum died a while ago.

And that’s the story. What has the narrator been stroking? is the question James doesn’t need to ask.

David Sandberg has produced here a ghost story of the same stark simplicity. A woman (Losten) is preparing for bed in her small apartment when she discovers she’s being haunted: in the half light of a darkened corridor she can catch glimpses of the naked figure of, seemingly, an adolescent girl (uncredited). So she tapes the light-switch firmly to the ON position, climbs into bed and tries to get some sleep.

But even pulling the bedclothes over her head can’t save her . . .

And that’s basically all the story there is. Yet this neat little shocker—just a couple of minutes long and completely free of dialogue—succeeded in scaring me more than I can remember being scared by any full-length horror movie. And, lemme assure you, it doesn’t get any less scary with repeated watching! It’s still effective even when you know what’s going to happen.

Lights Out won a 2014 Fright Meter Award, was nominated for an iHorror Award and racked up a colossal number of hits on YouTube. Its fame was sufficient that New Line released a full-length horror movie based on it, again directed by Sandberg (and with Losten in a small role): Lights Out (2016), with Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia and Billy Burke. I’m told the movie’s extremely good, but I confess I’m in two minds about whether I want to watch it. For me the great strength of this little short is, as I’ve said, its absolute simplicity. Do I really want to see it complexified?

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11 thoughts on “Lights Out (2013)

  1. Ha, that’s brilliant. It’s fair to say the full legnth movie will probably contain photogenic teens and a tragic backstory for the ghost…you’re doubtless better off leaving it well alone.

    Always loved that James story, too. I believe it’s ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ and probably the only one of his that ever really had the desired effect. Others like ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘A Warning for the Curious’ came close, but always seemd to work too hard to go “OOOooooOOoOO, this is weird, innit?”. As you say: work less, achieve more.

    • I’m planning to reread the collection at some point in the not too distant future — thanks, Gutenberg! — so will let you know if that’s the one.

      And you’re probably right about the feature-length version! I’m sure the song breaks will be good, though.

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