dir: Christopher Krupka
It’s amazing what you can do with no budget, a bunch of people, a couple of cheap cameras and some terrifying sound design.
The Lights is an Australian horror flick that is unpolished, messy and very clunky in some ways, and it’s definitely an exponent of the found footage horror genre, which are a sequence of words alone that could make people flee to the hills, but in some quite powerful ways it succeeds in what it sets out to do.
There’s no doubt that it could have benefited from some more money, maybe a little more time on the script. But there is no doubting that even if The Lights uses a bunch of familiar elements in familiar ways, it still manages to do exactly what it sets out to do: unsettle, confuse and terrify.
A lot of horror flicks use the found footage conceit, yet the way it’s used in The Lights is somewhat confusing. Someone, someone who we hear ask questions of some of the participants / survivors, is filming whatever’s going on (with a few scenes of other footage thrown in from phones and other cameras as well) giving it the feel of a ramshackle documentary spliced with found footage. But whoever the unseen person filming is, despite the fact that we know it’s not one of the main four characters, there’s no real explanation as to who they are and why they’re filming.
There are also interviews peppering the flow of the movie, which sometimes enhance, sometimes detract from the experience.
I am ashamed of myself for making mention of that which I will make mention, but it’s impossible to not refer to The Blair Witch Project, which definitely wasn’t the first horror flick to use the found footage conceit, but was certainly the most successful and influential (for good and ill).
At its core it’s a horror flick where something inexplicable, or barely explicable happens to a group of young people with little explanation, but a heap of heavy menace. When it happens, it’s horrifying. Afterwards, there’s just confusion.
A group of four, led by a chap called Jarrod, who is a bit of a fan of the supernatural, searches for a location in a bit of a wilderness-y area just outside of Bathurst (I’m assuming it’s meant to be outside of Bathurst, because that’s where it was filmed). One’s a sceptic, one’s a photographer, one’s along for the ride, and one’s a true believer.
And then something awful happens. Then something confusing, then something perplexing, then something astounding, then something flat out crazy.
But at no stage does the film approach a pat answer as to what’s going on. All we know is that something horrible and barely understood by the protagonists is happening to them, and that they’re as confused as we are, and that there isn’t really any way or path they can follow to make things fumble towards a happy ending.
The performances are believably low-key (mostly), since they’re all (I’m hoping) friends or acquaintances of the director. At the very least they’re young people operating with the requisite confusion and immaturity that one would demand. There’s no attempt, to make this a post-meta-horror flick a la Cabin in the Woods, in that it’s played deadly straight and without a lick of irony.
One of their number disappears on that fateful night where they go camping in search of a mystery, the titular Lights that are expected to appear (though, I feel like a bit of a prick pointing out they didn’t bring any camping gear with them, tee hee hee), but someone appears in her place. An American no less, from the sounds of it, and she’s clutching a gun, like every American should carry by law.
So, with a disappearance, mysterious and inexplicable by its very nature, the situation is compounded with a violent altercation arising from an appearance.
Whoever played Jennifer made a big impression on me with little screen time. Other than the horripilating sequence where Candace goes missing, Jennifer’s manner and behaviour might have been straight out of Horror Genre Stock, but it worked tremendously well for me. The manner in which she repeated her lines with a mixture of the dazedness of someone suffering from shock, with the obvious mental patient escapee vibe, completely obscuring what was actually going on, worked really well.
Actually, I take back / modify what I said earlier on: the audience probably does know a bit more than the characters, because we’re the ones watching the film, and can see (just barely) something more of what’s happening (in a genre sense) than they can.
For Jarrod, as the film rolls on, there comes a stark difference between what’s happening to various people, and what he feels is his role in these matters. He’s as clueless as the other (remaining, rapidly dwindling) protagonists, but he feels, rightly or wrongly, that their disappearances are his fault. How did I figure this out?
Well, he tells us constantly in between yelling at people about how bad he feels about it. I’m not sure he really is responsible, in any actual way, but I also know that guilt isn’t always rational, because, believe me, I carry enough of it around to know. But Jarrod’s burden is not my own, and it at least goes some way towards explaining his decision at the end, which was a strong one thematically, but I’m not sure the flick really rewards him for his choice, noble though it may be.
Much of my temptation is to start saying stuff along the lines of “I wish they’d done this, or it should have gone this way, or that way”, which is a pointless level of guff to put into a review, because then you’re not reviewing the film you watched, but the film in your head, which of course is way better, because you created it. Apart from three sequences that left me with goosebumps so severe I got a tad worried if the condition was permanent, there are some sections that I would hope, when the director eventually gets to remake this flick with a 20 million dollar budget, could have been excised or improved. If the film has a flaw, it’s that after the sequence with The Lights! Candace and Jennifer, it kind of slows to a crawl as the uncomprehending characters sit around talking about stuff they can’t understand but can’t do anything about in order to get any greater understanding. And after a horrifying section in Jarrod’s house, there’s this strange overly long interlude in a forest that may have meant something (to go along with the potential theme of what’s happening to the people being replaced with… somethings), but didn’t really work for me.
Other than the dread that suffuses much of the flick (mostly carried through via the cheap but very effective score / sound design), I like the fact that it eschews easy explanations (or any explanations, really), and that a worrying character called Bob, who clearly has some role to play, and knows far more than anyone else, including the viewer, is never really explained either. He’s certainly not a nice chap, but we don’t know whether he’s a villain, an unwilling servant of awful powers-that-shouldn’t-be, or just someone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I really do feel sorry for Dana (the sceptic, naturally, nice and lazy X-Files reference), though, poor thing. It’s one thing to lose a bunch of friends under confusing circumstances. But to never find how or why – that’s genuinely psychologically terrifying.
Damn, with a bit more budget, a bit more time, a bit more script, this would have been perfect for a midnight session at Cinema Nova. It might fall prey to the same faults that pervade the “found footage genre”, but it was far more enjoyable than any of those terrible Paranormal Activity flicks, which made like a billion dollars.
Eh, I never said there was any justice in this world.
Explain nothing. Horrify everyone. See The Lights, but don’t go into them. Nothing good will come from that.
7 times it’s films like this that are the main reason why I never go camping, or go chasing unexplained lights, or ever trust people called Bob out of 10
“Everything is going to change’ – these words are always more forceful and convincing when you’re holding a gun to someone’s neck. – The Lights