Building upon his short of the same name, David Sanberg’s Lights Out is a welcome addition to the horror revival of the new millennium’s teen years. Family-centric horror is on the kind of hot streak that would make a superhero soil his spandex trousers with entries like The Conjuring 2, Stranger Things and now Lights Out. Produced on a budget of roughly $5 million and grossing an opening weekend eight times that, this viral-hit-turned-feature depicts a young woman and her family being dogged by a spirit that cannot survive in the light.
Most anyone can tell you about the time they woke up and thought they saw something or someone in their room in the dark. But being too young to differentiate the shadows from objects on the shelf won’t keep Teresa Palmer and her little brother safe. The pair are tormented by a dead girl named Diana invited to live in the dark of their lives by their mother (played by Maria Bello).
The film relies on the fear of the dark and a creepy. It works, thanks in no small part to a fully realized performance of the invading spirit by actress and dancer Alicia Vela-Bailey. Wicked Horror caught up with Alicia to talk about her recent outing as the nightmare inducing Diana and she was nothing short of giddy in her enthusiasm for the character. “So much fun. When David first showed me the character [and] the artwork, I was like, Oh my gosh, this is so creepy. I love horror movies and love the eeriness. I had a lot fun with it.”
Vela-Bailey’s performance is almost completely played out through body language. The multi-hyphenate performer continues a tradition of crossover performances that require an amount of body control that movement artists like Linda Hager, Bolaji Badejo, Doug Jones and Andy Serkis have all been praised for. Horror has birthed countless crossover directors like William Friedkin, Jim Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Jackson. All of whom saw their vision completed through these “faceless” actors. Arguably, in all of these instances, we would not know these directors this well without their dance partners. Director David Sanberg and Vela-Bailey have crafted a visual performance that highlights that same working relationship as we venture further into Sandberg’s vision for horror and conceivably sci-fi. Alicia acknowledged the unique dynamics of the relationship as they worked to find the character in the shadowy antagonist. “He definitely had an idea, but I don’t think he necessarily knew how it would look on a human body. And if, you know, someone could move that way. Because of my dance and gymnastics background,–I’m sure they have a video of my audition somewhere–I was doing backbends, crawling on my hands… I was just doing weird movements. Like we would go fully one way and he would say, ‘Oh I like maybe this part, but not so much this.’ And then we would turn it around. So we were just weaving in and out different movements, ways the character could move and how quick and how supernatural the movement would be.”
Thanks to “Diana” being a practical performance instead of a visual effect, Alicia wasn’t restricted her journey to bring the character to afterlife. “It wasn’t specifically choreographed. Certain scenes though, David had very specific moments he wanted to capture. I would always ask [questions] like, ‘Am I popping up really fast or is this a slow raise?’ There’s different moments where I’m crouched in a ball. ‘Do you want me to roll up through my spine? Do you want me to stand up like a cat, already upright? Even the unwinding of the hands and the fingers are so long. Slow movements to fast movements ’cause we kind of wanted to mix it up. We didn’t want all the movements to be the same. It was never totally choreographed, we would do different versions of it and see what looked better on camera and what David liked.”
In much the same way Zack Snyder brought zombies running up to speed for modern sensibilities, Lights Out’s spectre gives the Japanese-inspired lurkers of the early aughts a boost of intensity with her deliberate movements. “I like that. I love the horror movies where the killer is walking at the same pace. It’s kind of fun. You know?,” as she mimes to an invisible potential horror movie victim, “You have time to run away! Go! But for this, she’ll move how she needs to. She’ll creep up on you, she’ll move fast and that’s what I liked about it, because you didn’t know what to expect from her. Then realizing she’s really strong, too: She can toss you. ”
Clapping gleefully at the prospect of the damage Diana could do on film. Vela-Bailey exclaimed “I was like oooh. I like this character. I don’t know, it just gave more to the story, more movement and different ways she could attack people.”
As many droids from the Star Wars films, John Travolta’s hair team on Battlefield Earth, and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of X-men: Apoclaypse can tell you, giving a performance in prosthetics can be an isolating experience. While it could certainly conform to some level of method acting, Alicia says she didn’t care much for coming into the light, “On set, it was funny, I would be on set trying to stay cool. It was really hot in the suit, but it was funny because, as Diana, I wanted to stay in the dark. I knew I looked hideous, it was really weird, I almost felt sorry for Diana. Every time anyone walked around the corner. ‘Ah! Woah!’ I’m trying not to scare people. I’m trying to sit quietly, but the makeup and everything… It was just so creepy looking.”
The separation may have been an unintended consequence of trying to save her coworkers unnecessary scares, but for her co-star Teresa Palmer, the isolation made for a more dramatic scene when she encounters the creature for the first time while filming.
After seeing the film, the actress admits that she even scared herself a few times. “There are certain scenes where I forgot. It looks totally different in the film sometimes than on set. Just the music and everything all combined together. There was a point where I was like, ‘Oh! The actress.’ But when I’m doing the movement and stuff, I don’t see myself. It’s just more of what I feel like. So seeing it is really cool. ‘Oh, that’s what I looked like.’”
You can see what Alicia looks like in the summer sleeper hit in its second week of release this weekend. Lights Out is in theaters now.