In 2013, David F. Sandberg wrote, directed, scored, shot and gave birth to a 3-minute horror short called Lights Out. You can watch it here. It’s a pretty brilliant little exercise in using silhouettes and editing to achieve maximum and visceral effect. As a demo, it’s great. The clip became so popular that, naturally a studio came bumbling over and commissioned it into a feature length film because clearly a 3-minute Youtube clip that leans entirely on one creepy visual image can be seamlessly lengthened into a satisfying feature.
Except, as the movie 9 showed us pretty unequivocally, this is not true. Short films are short films. Features are features. The two are quite different. It’s not to say that a really clever image from a short film cannot possibly become a good feature-length film. Just that it’s hard. And it’s no surprise that when Sandberg tried to extend the really striking visual idea he had into a movie with a cast of characters and a back-story and a plot, the spooky shadow creature on its own wasn’t quite enough to carry all that weight.
This is an OK horror movie, that relies heavily on a single (really scary!) visual image and trick. But it has to work to pigeon-hole that image into a functional plot and it doesn’t completely work. Sure, when the lights start flickering and then hit you with a jump-scare of a creepy-ass dreadlocked ghostie, it’s pretty satisfying. But the rest of the film’s parts are all working around that visual idea which was the genesis for the entire enterprise, and that’s a tough ask because it’s got the process pretty much backward. Usually you come up with the story idea first, and then build the imagery around that. Doing it in reverse is hard, and this film shows us why.
And of course, Sandberg is a very talented horror director. When he was given meatier material to work with in Annabelle: Creation, he fucking knocked it out of the park. So we know the man can direct the shit out of a good horror premise. It’s just that in Lights Out, he had a bang-on jump-scare and an inspired visual idea. But you can’t build a whole movie from top-to-bottom out of that alone.