The horror film is one of those recurring assaults on rationality that the best vehicles (I surmise) secretly intrigue and shock audiences, year after year. I cite Psycho, The Shining (the movie) and The Silence of the Lambs. This season, James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 (on the latest reckoning) has made more than US$320m.

The cultural pretence is that we have banished the supernatural to the gloomy rooms of quacks and New Age impresarios. No so. There are rolling waves of superfans out there.

Wan’s record is impressive and Lights Out is a brief, scary reprise of classic ghostly images and characters. There is a standard creepy ghost-racked house in which a single mother projects or experiences unnatural illusions of persecution. Her children are the main victims but, were that all, the film would be straight-to-DVD fare. However, it has several unique characteristics that have led to the prediction that it will be the sleeper of the season.

Variety believes so — and that the Australian-born “horrormeister” Wan could build on his reputation with Lights Out. It cost only $4m to make, yet may well have shown a new way to structure the cinematic platform for enthusiastic but penniless apprentices of the craft.

Wan was hooked by a few very brief episodes of a film of the same name (made by David Sandberg) at a festival in 2013 and then (gathering studios as he went) expanded it into this nonstop, furious compression of familiar horror scenes and created something new. One projection is that it could serve as a model for our own film-makers struggling for big-screen exposure. Too many SA films seem bent out of shape by the excessive weight of history.

Lights Out’s compression (the film is only 81 minutes long) could have degenerated into parody, especially since the thudding soundtrack taps into the clichés of childhood frights. Again, the “plot” – which involves the demonic possession of a mother (Bello) who cannot keep her inner fragmentation from taking horrific material form (a lurking female figure called “Diana” leaps from the dark with venomous intent) and from poisoning the lives of the two children (Palmer and Bateman) for whom she is meant to take responsibility. Her husband (Burke) has apparently fled, his family abandoned.

The premise could well have been lifted from Sigmund Freud, who said of “the uncanny” that it “dominates the mind of the child and primitive man ... [Then] from having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death ... just as, after the collapse of their religion, the gods turned into demons.” Despite scorn from modern psychologists, the great shrink’s reputation still hovers monster-like in the shadows.

As in most horror, the threat converges on the youngest leads (the daughter, Palmer, and the boy, Bateman). Even a somewhat wonky white knight (DiPersia) doesn’t deflect from this deliberate focus of fear. When the lights (electric or otherwise) go out, they are almost defenceless against Diana’s predation, which might be an emanation of Bello’s attested psychosis, but is distinctly murderous.

Wan and Sandberg happily borrow from what seems to be every precursor, as if the main leads have landed in that post-rational nightmare in which even descending into the cellar summons the weirdness many of us dread below the calmative explanations of why philosophy and science have reached walls too high to climb. God is banished from the violated planet: and in such a phantasmagoria, Satan rules.

Sounds just like the basis of the real world.

Lights Out
Directed by David F Sandberg; produced by James Wan
Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello

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