Lights Out (David F. Sandberg, 2016)

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Like an awful lot of its ilk, Lights Out is a horror film made by people who believe that being quiet for a long time, then being loud briefly is the same as being scary. Thus, I’m exceptionally happy for the filmmakers that Lights Out is at least very scary by their own valuation, even if by virtually nobody else’s on God’s green Earth.

I walked in, knowing nothing about this film but figured within seconds of it beginning that this was basically an 80-minute version of one of those completely samey “3-minute horrors” on YouTube. I realised, as the end credits rolled, that, no, that’s exactly what this film was. Thus, the entire point of this feature-length adaptation appears to be the search for a narrative justification for the micro-narrative of the original short. Needless to say, I found the search distinctly frustrated.

Here’s the thing: some horror films work brilliantly with no explanations whatsoever. It’s good that nobody can say 100% for sure why, for instance, Jack is in the photo at the end of The Shining. Alternatively, there are many horrors that successfully balance heavy extrapolation – take, for instance, Martin or The Wicker Man – with a still greatly cinematic aesthetic. What doesn’t work at all is when you explain loads about half of something, then just drop it, and that’s exactly what happens here. All this does is confirm that you as a filmmaker had a premise, but no real insight whatsoever into the plot of your own film. It means your film is severely lacking in justifications and motivations but not because you’re representing a world of chaos; rather that you just aren’t a good writer.

What we gather in this film is that “Diana” the supernatural antagonist, who exists only in the dark, definitely did exist as a human girl once but is now, like, a ghost? But she’s grown older? And she’s intrinsically connected to the mother’s mental state? But she still functions when the mother’s been knocked unconscious? Seriously, in terms of logic, this film is driving on empty.

I remember when I walked back home in a quietened daze from the first time I saw The Babadook, I said without a hint of irony or reservation that the family-based abuse-metaphor psychological horror filmmakers may as well just pack up shop: whatever hadn’t been covered to perfection the first time round by The Shining had absolutely just been covered to perfection by The Babadook. Because I understand The Witch in somewhat broader gender-oriented and theological terms, nothing has successfully shaken my opinion since – Lights Out is not merely no exception; it is in fact re-confirmation.

In The Shining, the monster is not merely the abusive father, rather the great old evil behind all such events – it is a force patriarchal, racist, misogynistic, addiction-enabling and murder-encouraging. This is why there’s little to no contradiction when all the symbolism points to the ghosts being part of Jack’s own mind (for instance, the fact that, every time he speaks to one, he’s stood before a mirror/reflective surface) and yet they reveal themselves to have power and presence separate from him (Grady’s ability to open the pantry door, Wendy’s visions etc). In The Babadook, the monster 100% reflects Amelia’s grief, pain and despair in the face of what she perceives as the intrinsic connection between her husband’s brutal if accidental death and the birth – in fact very existence of her “problem child,” Samuel. Its existence as an entity separate from her is as nuanced as the distinct between anyone’s personality and their mental illness. Thus, the answer to the question “is the monster real, or is it just a representation of a mother’s anguish?” is, of course, a resounding and simultaneous “yes” to both. No such nuance in Lights Out. The remarkable imbalance in this film leaves the meaning behind Diana’s presence entirely nonexistent, and yet mother Sophie still appears, in everyone’s esteem, entirely to blame.

The Shining and The Witch might both most simply be described as horror films about a family desperately tearing itself apart, whilst The Babadook may most simply be described as a horror film about a family trying desperately to piece itself back together; Lights Out seems to have the type of philosophy of family Robin Wood described in “The Lucas/Spielberg Syndrome,” charming, yet entirely motivated by a brutal neoliberal ethic. If a member of the family is too mentally unwell to fulfil their role satisfactorily, it’s best they just kill themself, so the rest of the family can carry on without them. Thus, what is most insidious (no pun intended) about Lights Out is not the horror at all, but the attitude it takes towards mental illness – one as mercenary as it is antediluvian. Even within the grand scheme of cookie-cutter jump-scare horrors, this film stands out as one worthy of particular reproach.

 

(Additional note: so what? The stepfather was a neuroscientist who worked at a mannequin factory? Why do they never explain what all the mannequins are doing everywhere?)

 

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2014)

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(Originally posted in now-defunct student e-zine FourFrame, under the title “Sin City: a Misogyny to Pass On”)

 

As a comic book fan, I am not without gratitude to Frank Miller. When Batman was starting to dwindle in 1986, it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that spring-boarded a reinvigoration of and new respect for the character that cannot be over-stressed. Sadly, he is also very much known for using comics – and more recently films – as platforms for his own ugly socio-political ideology. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is absolutely no exception.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For sets us in territory immediately familiar to watchers of the first film. Its multiple narrative structure shares characters between stories, in doing so making it difficult to follow for those who hadn’t seen the first film. The twisting chronology in fact made it rather difficult for me, someone who had. Frankly, I’m still not sure that a lot that happens in this sequel is physically possible, even within the limits of the Sin City universe: if Nancy (Jessica Alba)’s revenge narrative in this film is supposed to be set 4 years after the events of the first film, either Marv (Mickey Rourke)’s story from the first one must have spanned over four years or he has mysteriously come back to life after being sent to the electric chair… It usually helps when a film doesn’t distract me with such glaring narrative issues, and yet I had this thought stuck in my head for pretty much the whole 100 minutes. On perhaps a shallower note, I also refuse to acknowledge that back-alley plastic surgery would ever change Josh Brolin into Clive Owen. Plastic surgery has worked many a miracle, but as yet, it does not work magic.

Visually speaking, A Dame to Kill For is objectively impressive and, though I saw it in 2D, the depth of field was rich enough to make seeing it in 3D a worthwhile experience for someone who loves the film’s look. Personally, comic and noir fan as I am, I don’t care for the visuals of the Sin City franchise – the lack of rhyme and reason in terms of what gets colourized cheapens the effect whilst the digital sheen only detracts from the allegedly gritty ambiance: it becomes the rather telling embodiment of style over substance. I said it regarding the first film and I shall say it again now: frame-for-frame similarity with the source material is nothing to be proud of; this is a film, not a comic book, different media require different approaches.

The brief for: A Dame to Kill For was very clearly “like the first one, but more,” and certainly, the film strives to be more of everything: more violent, more sexual, and more black-and-white-film-with-random-things-colourized-for-no-discernible-reason. Whilst it certainly does achieve the third – very distractingly so – the most violent element of this film is its out-and-out misogyny. Granted, the original Sin Citywas hardly ever going to meet the approval of Molly Haskel, but its sexism was largely rooted in its constant “damsel in distress” tropes in the face of hyperbolised male chauvinism, and even the strongest of its female characters are viewed solely through an exaggerated male gaze. A Dame to Kill For moves away from traditionally sexist trivialisation of femininity to an abundant suspicion and hatred of it. Female characters are almost solely connected to images of manipulation and duplicity and, regularly, it seems only the female characters are the ones who will be punished for their dark ambition, regardless of it being a trait shared by literally everyone in the film. The most angering moment for me was in the final story, in which Nancy seems to symbolically shed her femininity in order to “man up” for her revenge plot by cutting her hair and then soon after cutting her face (the disfigurement of women is a common theme in the film). This would be bad enough, but it angers on yet another level as she then uses her new facial scars to manipulate Marv into doing most of the dirty work for her, anyway. In Miller’s mind, even the heroines are to be mistrusted by the heroes.

To give credit where credit’s due, the film is not let down by the performances – in particular the newcomers such as Eva Green and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are as good as one should expect of such fine actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s story (just like Jessica Alba’s) is completely new and takes direct cues from Casino Royale in working out how to make a poker game legitimately tense and atmospheric, though thankfully without the patronising narration explaining the rules. However, the notable absence of certain actors (Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan both died between films, being respectively written out and replaced very capably with Dennis Haysbert) does make it apparent just how long it has been since the first Sin City film came out: nine years ago. I don’t remember anyone crying out for a sequel and, judging from how much it is currently struggling at the box office, it seems nobody was. At the end of the day, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For acts more as documentation for the steady increase of Frank Miller’s ultra-right-wing misogyny than any form of legitimate entertainment and, quite frankly, his article on Occupy Wall Street was more than enough documentation for me. Want to watch a noirish comic book movie? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Watch The Crow. Hell, watch The Shadow. At least the film that almost killed Alec Baldwin’s career understood the difference between showing guts and having guts.

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