David Sandberg: Lights out | Daily News

David Sandberg: Lights out

Though its premise is dumb in many ways, Lights Out is dumb in a fun kind of way. This is the funniest horror flick I’ve seen since Poltergeist; there were moments where I had to hold back my aching sides, just as I had to with Tobe Hooper’s classic. Who gets ideas like this? At one level, Lights Out is about a parable against all those psychiatric advice about letting out your fears and desires: the protagonist’s mother, played by the great Maria Bello (The Guardian has called her one of the finest actresses alive not yet nominated for an Oscar), perhaps taking this advice a little too far, inverts it by externalising her obsessions and then internalising them in the form of the monster at the centre of the story.

The director, David Sandberg, has a way with the material that evokes genuine thrills and intermittent laughs. It’s hard not to yelp in fear at some of its sequences: the opening scenes, of a particularly gruesome murder that mercifully happens off-screen, set the tone and pace for the rest of the story. But it’s also funny, and it engages the sort of humour you wouldn’t expect from a horror movie about the dangers of living out your fantasies. Unlike Mike Flanagan or Ari Aster, Sandberg doesn’t take a cinephile’s approach to the narrative: he doesn’t flesh it out and breathe life to the plot. Certain scenes seem out of place; certain others seem like they don’t belong there at all. The comedy tends to jar at one point. And of course, the ending looks and feels a bit too depressive, even by the standards the opening sets for the film.

Proper narrative

Lights Out was based on a short film Sandberg directed and released in 2013; it became such a sensation that it merited its own Wikipedia article, ballooning from 8,000 views to more than a million on YouTube; as of today, it counts more than 15 million. Like the feature flick it became, it lacks a proper narrative; there’s hardly any dialogue, and the final scene, terrifying though it is, leaps up to you after some rather frustrating moments. The only two characters in the short version are an ordinary woman and a monster who appears out of thin air in the dark. Without getting into the how and the why, she’s condemned to the dark: shine a light and, like the cute monsters in Gremlins, she either flees into the night or melts. In the short version we see her at the end; she almost looks like the Momo girl, a Japanese bird woman.

In the feature adaptation she’s more terrifying, but unlike the original we don’t see her properly even at the end: as with her mental makeup, she’s physically distorted, and can only rasp and howl. She does speak properly, unlike in the shorter clip where she doesn’t speak at all, which has the effect of humanises her. In any other monster-ghost horror flick, this would have been a distraction; in Lights Out it almost becomes one, but the words she puts out attempt to sum up her plight. We feel sorry for her, but she’s become a vampire by then: sucking the life out of the protagonist’s mother, feeding on her memories, not letting her go. When she dies, she goes away with screams: shrieking like a banshee, snuffed out in seconds.

We know very little about its director, but Sandberg has been directing for quite some time, and has given us other decent horror flicks. He’s expanded on his ability to mix thrills with laughs: this doesn’t crop up much in Annabelle: Creation, but it crops up brilliantly in Shazaam, where one moment you’re recoiling in disgust at the movie’s monsters and the other laughing openly at the superman-type who’s supposed to be the movie’s hero.

Pauline Kael has written about how Steven Spielberg’s Jaws resembles a comedy in its middle act: the three seafarers, on a quest to kill the shark, bare their chest to one another to show that they’re braver than the rest. In Shazaam, more so than in Lights Out, the heroes have their foibles: if they don’t quite try to prove they’re better than the rest, they don’t hesitate showing off to the public. Shazaam’s attempt at saving a group of passengers from a bus that’s about to topple over a bridge is a case in point: it parodies countless sequences from Superman cartoons and films that at its end you feel even those sequences were parodies. When Shazaam tries to shoo a dog sitting in his way before landing the bus on the ground, you get the impression that all those scenes just had to end in this one. The humour cuts through the whole sequence, and in fact becomes the whole film. It’s funny in a way most superhero movies – which for the most tend to be funny, barring a work like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – are not.

Video store

Sandberg’s story is no less intriguing than his work. Born in 1981 in Sweden, he borrowed his father’s VHS recorder and, in his late teens, worked extra hours at a video store. These, he tells us, “served as both a kind of film school as well as a way for me to save up money and buy my own camera.” (He had broken his father’s recorder early on.) His interest in short movies flowed from an almost zealous interest in movie editing: soon he was submitting his work, amateur as it was, to a local film centre.

Having interned at that centre, he began carving his own path. In 2006, aged 25, he uploaded his first real work, an animated short titled För Barnen, on “this new thing called YouTube.” Unfortunately, YouTube deemed it slightly obscene, too “mature”, flagging it and taking it down a little later. Sandberg was undeterred: he made another short; by the time it went viral, it had captured more than two million views.

He bought his first HD camera in 2008 soon after he got a film scholarship; the latter enabled him to come into contact with Sweden’s ad industry. A few short flicks and documentaries later, he achieved a breakthrough of sorts in 2013 with a documentary, Ladyboy, “an experimental mix of animation and live action”, followed by a feature short about a boy whose cartoons come to life, Wallace. Lights Out followed all these ventures; it’s safe to say he hasn’t looked back, safer to say he won’t have to. He certainly hasn’t let go of his YouTube channel, on which, as he readily admits even today, he continues to upload new material.

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