If Lights Out and The Babadook were siblings, then Babadook is the artistic one that’s caught up in Kubrick and Virginia Woolf and Schrodinger and going to museums, while Lights Out is smart but would rather be popular and social and go on a road trip or day drink while floating down a river.
When The Babadook came out, there were people saying it was one of the scariest movies of the year. Which got horror fans all pumped to see it. Except Babadook isn’t a horror movie. It’s literary cinema that borrows elements of horror in order to explore the resentment a mother feels towards her child and her guilt for feeling that resentment and how this affects the kid.
It would be like if someone told you Breaking Bad was a thriller. Yeah, some parts are thrilling. But Breaking Bad is concerned with way more than just “thrilling” you. It gets at mortality, what you would do if you thought you were dying, how far you’d go to provide for your family, ego, power, what you’ll do to survive, guilt, etc. etc. etc. Reducing it to a the generic description of “thriller” is silly.
In Babadook we start with the mom in labor and dad driving them to the hospital, only for the car to crash. The husband dies. The mom lives and gives birth. So now every time she sees her son she’s reminded of her dead husband. This could have been a regular drama: we see how the mom struggles with her grief and can’t love her son how she wants to because of it—this causes the son to act out and be needier than he wants to be because all he wants is the love his mother refuses to give—his neediness only increases her resentment—they have a big meltdown—they make up!
Instead Babadook opts to have the resentment manifest itself in a monster called the Babadook. In the regular drama, the mom’s anger would have come to a violent head where maybe she smacks the son, or “accidentally” gives him too many pills, or he’s choking and she lets him suffocate and die only to freak out and revive him, or maybe she leaves him at the mall hoping someone else will grab him. To defamiliarize this, The Babadook has the Babadook possess the mom and makes her try to kill her son. This allows the film to go to the extreme rather than the realistic. Sometimes making something so unfamiliar is the best way to make it familiar.
But this means that The Babadook isn’t necessarily concerned with being scary or categorizing itself as a horror movie. It’s a personal and family drama. All of its horror elements are used to represent the emotional struggle of the mom and the son. Which is why a lot of people who went in expecting something like Halloween are often left unsatisfied if not confused or angry.
Imagine if your friend was like, “Surprise, I’m taking you to Las Vegas!” And then you go to Vegas but your friend only takes you to independent movies, art museums, and galleries. You wouldn’t necessarily dislike going to these things but it’s not the gambling, drinking, partying Las Vegas experience you had expected. Or maybe you would dislike all those things and be legitimately upset.
Lights Out on the other would be like someone taking you to Vegas, taking you to the strip, to gamble, drink, party, but somehow those parties end up being at museums and art galleries and somehow you ended up seeing a movie but you saw it with an Elvis impersonator, a David Bowie impersonator, a Prince impersonator, and the real Britney Spears so that’s one hell of a story!
In other words: Lights Out manages to appeal to audiences much better than The Babadook did.
Just look at the box office results: Babadook had a $2 million budget and grossed $7.5 million. Lights Out had a $4.9 million budget and grossed an absurd $148 million. Part of that has to do with Lights Out having had a much broader release than Babadook, but that also says a lot about the faith distributors and cinemas had in the appeal of Lights Out.
So why did Lights Out work? It’s kind of the inverse of what the Babadook did.
Where Babadook focused on Theme and Style over Scares, Lights Out went more for Scares over Style and Theme.
The opening scenes are perfect examples.
In Babadook we open with the mom sitting in the passenger seat of a car but it’s too dark to be sure she’s in a car but you think she’s in a car, then there’s a high pitched sound, glass explodes and hits her in the face, there’s a slow motion yell, the car’s rolling, the mom looks shocked and overwhelmed, another yell, then she looks over and sees her husband, there’s a bright light, a monstrous noise, then she’s falling through the air and into bed. All while her son screams “Mom! Mom! Mom!”
So there you have something weird and artistic and metaphoric and poetic and overwhelming and disorienting. It’s high brow.
Lights Out starts in a textile factory that’s closing for the night. Two people are still there, the owner and his assistant. As the assistant starts turning off lights, we see a strange shadow figure. The assistant sees it too and is confused until the shadow creature moves and then she’s fucking terrified. As she should be. She tells the owner to be careful and the owner thanks her and tells her to go. Then he’s all alone. There’s already a sense of dread as we know things won’t go well. Then the guy starts turning off lights and sees the same shadow person-creature-thing. It chases him. He’s kind of hurt but realizes he can stay in the light and survive. Now it’s this cat and mouse game, that doesn’t go well for the mouse. Poor guy.
How Lights Out opens is way more familiar than Babadook so ends up being more immersive than Babadook. In Babadook we’re left trying to figure out what’s going on, observing the moment and trying to figure it out rather than feeling part of it. That distance is kind of the antithesis of what horror films strive for.
The bedrock of modern horror is to present information and edit scenes in such a way as to pull the viewer into the scene as much as possible so they feel as terrified by what’s happening as the characters in the movie. The Babadook eventually settles into classic immersive techniques, but its thematics and artistic style manages to keep viewers from total submersion. It’s like if you were riding a roller coaster and had to count how many times you went up and how many times you went down. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different viewing experience than what Lights Out offers.
With Lights Out, the style is much more in-line with mainstream expectations for immersive narrative beats, cinematography, and horror-genre tension. It’s like getting on a roller coaster and just riding.
Working within that frame, Lights Out still manages to defamiliarize children dealing with a parent with extreme depression. Just like Babadook could have been a regular, non-supernatural drama, Lights Out could have been about a mother with psychological issues who lashes out in completely natural ways. An Oscar-bait movie for Angelina Jolie oscillating between loving mother and a woman depressed-to-the-point-of-psychosis. Can you see it? The children are torn because they love when this woman is their mother but fear when she is overcome by her depression.
Instead of going that natural route, Lights Out substitutes the depression with the monstrous Diana, so that depression takes on a physical and terrifying form. I’m sure there are people who saw Lights Out and cried because it reminded them so much of the home life they had had, of the relationship they still have with a parent who hasn’t been able to conquer their mental demons.
So while both Lights Out and The Babadook have different personalities and are different viewing experiences, they both get at deeper aspects of the mother-child relationship.