I had a good time with David Samberg’s Lights Out while I was watching it. The film has got a killer premise for a horror movie and some wonderfully executed (and frightening) scenes. Sure, it isn’t as technically well made as other recent indie horror movies like The Witch or It Follows but it is a fun, scary movie that I was ready to recommend up until its ending, which left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. My reasoning for this is going to take some explaining, so without further ado…
The film’s plot concerns Sophie (Maria Bello), who is being haunted by a mysterious apparition named Diana that can only take a physical form in the dark (see what I mean about the killer premise?). This has caused her oldest daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), to leave her family behind and start her own life. Also in the picture is Rebecca’s younger brother Martin (Gabriel Batemen), who still lives at home with mom. At first, the kids just think that Sophie is suffering from a mental illness that makes her dangerous. However, as you probably guessed, the apparition is both real and violent. That being said, it is clear that Sophie is indeed suffering from depression. It is established in the film that she is on antidepressants and has seen a therapist about this in the past.
The first major point I want to make here is about what Diana symbolizes. The film makes it clear that Diana is meant to be symbolic of Sophie’s mental illness. The audience clearly sees this when we learn that Sophie’s prescribed medication makes Diana go away when she takes it. Also, Diana often confines Sophie to her room and stops her from functioning effectively throughout the day. Diana effects Sophie in the way that depression would and her antidepressants are the only way that she Sophie can make Diana go away. The allegory is clear, Diana is a physical manifestation of Sophie’s depression. Immediately, this should be raising a couple of red flags. After all, depression certainly effects the lives of people who suffer from it as well as their loved ones but the film is putting this in terms of violence. Diana literally harms Sophie and her children with violence and is a threat to their lives. The film even establishes that Diana killed Rebecca’s father. This is the first of the film’s troubling implications. Sophie’s mental illness is a destructive force of violence that is being inflicted on her family.
While the metaphor might be conceptually flawed (I’ve known people with depression and I’ve never quite felt that my life was at risk because of it) it is the ending of the film that makes matters much worse. The third act is coming to an end when Rebecca has to turn back and rescue her mother from Diana. This at first seems like it is a great move on the part of the writers as it allows Rebecca to write the wrong of abandoning her mother by not doing it again and instead helping her combat the manifestation of her depression. The film is constantly drawing attention to Rebecca’s willingness to abandon her suffering mother and Rebecca’s character arc concludes when she decides to go back into the house to save her mother from Diana. If the film had ended with Rebecca and Sophie defeating Diana together then it would have been a story about a family suffering through the worst of depression together and coming out on the other side. But, that’s not what happens.
Instead, Diana has Rebecca pinned down and is about to killer her. After that, the viewer sees Sophie with a gun to her head. Sophie kills herself in order to save Rebecca from Diana (it is somewhat confusing in the film but it is established that Diana cannot live without Sophie, strengthening the interpretation that Diana is a manifestation of Sophie’s mental illness). So, after Sophie’s suicide all of the characters are actually pretty well off. It is a happy ending in which all of the characters are safe and ready to move on with their lives.
Is everyone seeing the problem here? In this film, Sophie’s illness is hurting her and her family so she does what is, in context of the film, the heroic thing and takes her own life. This is an incredibly insensitive position to take on mental illness. The film is saying that the heroic thing to do for someone whose mental illness is effecting the lives of their loved ones is to take their own life.
Now I know that you can barely navigate the internet without coming across a reactionary social justice call out or a well intentioned but tedious thinkpiece about why such and such is problematic. However, I want to point out that the film is explicitly about mental illness. At its core, the movie is about a family coping with one of its members having a mental illness and how it affects the other members of that family. So, it is almost impossible to analyse the film at all without dealing with this unfortunate subtext. As it stands, this thematic insensitivity has unfortunately overshadowed the film’s good qualities in my mind