Last April (man, time flies), I saw a film called Unfriended. I liked it well enough, but as is so often the case, the things I didn’t like about it were more interesting than the things I did, so I ended up writing an obscenely long review. The funny thing about that, though, is that despite its 2700ish word length, I still didn’t touch on the thing I disliked most: The ending. I felt like the film’s ending fundamentally undermined everything that it had been building towards, and I was generally upset with it.
I saw Lights Out in the same room at the same movie theater, and as the film ended, I thought back to Unfriended. Because it ended kind of like I wanted Unfriended to end, but not how I wanted Lights Out to end. And I don’t like that. I don’t think it undermined anything in doing so, and given the development of the narrative, it’s probably the “correct” way to end it, at least in the moment… but sometimes you just reject the way a narrative goes. And that’s what happened to me here.
So, let’s unpack that a bit. (Don’t worry, this won’t be another treatise.)
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Director: David Sandberg
Release Date: July 22, 2016
You wouldn’t know that David Sandberg directed Lights Out if you had just seen the trailer. The only name I remember from it was James Wan, who produced the film. I saw The Conjuring 2 in theaters just a couple of weeks ago, and I can see why the comparisons were made. I will also say that I found Lights Out to be both more and less compelling than Wan’s film. (I’m curious how long before we start seeing Sandberg’s name on trailers for movies he didn’t direct.) Those trailers tell you two things about the film: The mother is unwell, and the monster can only be seen in the darkness. The light turns on, and she (it) disappears. This plays out in the trailer as a red light from outside a character’s window brings the shadow thing in and out of being. I remember watching the trailer thinking, “Is this the whole movie?”
In the opening scene of Lights Out, the first time the monster appears, the woman who sees it flips a light switch at least six times. The audience started to laugh. The woman tells the father of the children in the trailer (and husband of the not-well mother) that something weird is going on and he should be careful. The only thing I could think was, “I don’t remember this dad character from the trailer. He’s going to die, isn’t he?”
A lot of Lights Out plays out the way you would expect it to. It’s genuinely scary at times, though this is in large part due to the ease of jump scares when your monster effectively teleports. But it works (mostly). This is true because the monster itself is interesting. The origin story of Diana is sort of convoluted, and part of me wishes that they’d done less with it. There’s a lot of detail for something that ultimately doesn’t matter very much. You can grasp the fundamentals pretty quickly, without the hyper-expository (though admittedly creepy) flashbacks, but… whatever. It’s fine.
The more interesting thing is what Diana represents. It’s not a spoiler to say that Diana is the specter of an abusive relationship. The way she treats the mother and terrifies her kids; the hold she has on everyone and everything. The way she explodes when anyone tries to get in her way. (And refuses to listen to the only “instruction” she’s ever given.) The best monsters are ones that play on real fears, that represent terrible things. Ways for a fantastical version of a real horror as a way for audiences to confront that in a way that feels a bit less visceral but nonetheless meaningful. Diana is that. Lights Out does that. It’s not effective all the time, in part because Diana periodically falls into the trap of being Just A Movie Monster on a few occasions (most obviously in a very creepy sequence lit by black light, where her reveal reads too “THIS IS A MOVIE JUMP SCARE” and not enough “THIS IS A REAL THING THAT MAKES SENSE”), but overall she’s a fairly unique take on a ghost. I liked what they tried to do, and think they were more successful than not.
But, there’s a problem, one that has almost nothing to do with Diana.
I want to talk about the ending. Spoilers, obviously, to follow:
Lights Out ends with a suicide. The suicide of the mother (whose name is Sophie) in order to save her children. Diana only exists as long as Sophie is under her spell. Sophie suffers from severe depression, and Diana feeds off of it. Something terrible happens (the death of her husband, which is never really discussed, and no one seems to question it, despite the particularly horrific circumstances of it). Sophie goes off her meds, and Diana is there to pick up the pieces. She is Sophie’s only friend.
In order to keep Diana away, Sophie needs help. Therapy, medication, hospitalization, whatever. She clearly needs something, and just when you think she’s going to get it, she kills herself. In that moment, it is truly the only way to stop Diana. I get that. I understand that her suicide is the “correct” thing to do. The person I saw it with said, not incorrectly, that Sophie made her bed (with Diana) and was forced to lie in it. She subjected her kids, her husbands, to the horror, and paid the price.
But on a purely visceral level, I reject the notion that suicide is the correct answer. I reject the notion that the narrative had to go down that path. Given the path it went down, sure; but I don’t see that as the inevitable path. It’s only inevitable because of the tension the sequence created. The slow, methodical treatment of the mother from the brink wouldn’t have made for a particularly satisfying resolution, but that doesn’t mean that the film had to take the road it did. Unfriended should have ended in suicide rather than one last jump scare, because that’s what the film was about. It would have brought everything full circle in a horrific (but meaningful) way. In Lights Out, it comes seemingly out of nowhere. It doesn’t really build to that moment. It just happens. And then the movie is over just a couple minutes later. Maybe there will be a sequel where the kids have to grapple with what they witnessed (though the return of Diana would undermine rather than highlight the tragedy of Sophie’s martyrdom, and would only make me angrier), but that’s not what we get here.
I have a problem with that. I have a serious problem with that.
And it’s unfortunate, because I liked so much of what Lights Out does and is. It’s a well-crafted film, one that’s absolutely worth watching. There is a fascinating divisiveness out there that I don’t really understand (and would love to talk to someone who disagrees with me on any or all of this), because I think it’s as effective a PG-13 horror movie as I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s more effective than most R-rated ones I’ve seen recently.
But I just can’t abide by that ending.