Only six actors appear in writers/directors Scott Beck's and Bryan Woods' supernatural thriller Nightlight, and the film's most inventive performance, by a considerable margin, is given by its lead. That this lead isn't actually one of the aforementioned six - and is, in fact, an inanimate object - isn't quite the detriment you'd think.
Following a video-blog prelude in which we meet the morose high-schooler Ethan (Kyle Fain), whose suicide proves the catalyst for the traumas to follow, we find ourselves, some months later, in the car of Ethan's former friend and crush Robin (Shelby Young). With her pooch Kramer in the backseat, Robin has driven out to the purportedly haunted Covington Forest at night, having been invited to play flashlight games with fellow teens she refers to as "the cool kids": the British hottie Ben (Mitch Hewer), the Jewish jokester Chris (Carter Jenkins), and the mostly interchangeable mean girls Nia and Amelia (Chloe Bridges and Taylor Ashley Murphy). And while that video-blog opener may have suggested it, Robin's introduction - given the static, low-angle compositions and Young's aiming-for-naturalistic readings - confirms it: Nightlight is yet another "found footage" scare flick, and set in a Blair Witch-y locale to boot.
Yet before the scene ends, and almost before you have the opportunity to sigh, "Here we go again ... ," your eye is caught by something unusual and unanticipated. Wait a second, you slowly realize, this "found footage" is actually the POV of Robin's flashlight?! It is indeed, and for the next 80 minutes, Beck and Woods (Bettendorf natives, now residing in Los Angeles, who originated their Bluebox Films production company locally) go to town with their ingenious conceit: Everything on-screen, minus the Ethan footage, is shown from the flashlight's illuminated perspective, and when its batteries fail, which happens a lot, we're momentarily left in the dark, too. Nightlight's young actors acquit themselves decently enough, but the flashlight, at all times, is the star of the show.
For long stretches, this spin on an intensely tired fright-film trope - one so presentationally clever yet so seemingly obvious that you can't believe you haven't seen it done before - tickled me to no end. In broad terms, having Robin's flashlight serve as the camera, rather than having a camera serve as the camera, gets rid of a couple of typically irksome genre pitfalls. With the characters unaware that they're being filmed, because (in Nightlight's reality) they're not, the cast doesn't have to indulge in any dully self-aware mugging for the footage's presumed viewers, and we're happily spared the shrieks of "Put the f---ing camera down and let's get the f--- out of here!" that feel like every other exclamation in the Paranormal Activity of your choosing.
And the flashlight/camera angle pays even greater dividends when employed more specifically. The movie is at its finest and most nerve-racking in a very early scene that finds Robin, in one of the teens' more ill-advised games, forced to outrun an approaching train. With Robin's flashlight positioned on the tracks facing the terrified girl, and the train coming thisclose to making contact, the sequence - which doesn't boast any evident CGI effects - is thrillingly intense, never more so than when the locomotive passes over the flashlight, over us, as it blares off into the distance. Every good Beck/Woods movie has at least one "How the hell did they do that?" shot, and this is Nightlight's biggie.
That flashlight, however, keeps delivering memorable POV imagery: when, in the hands of another teen, it tumbles down a cliff and we see the kid's body splatter against an upside-down tree; when it hovers over a pair of sleeping girls and continues to rise, proof that nothing human can be holding it; when it shines directly on Kramer, whose eyes, as dogs' eyes do, immediately glow a malevolent, glassy red. (Considering how well-trained he is, I hoped for a bit more from Kramer than merely serving as the canine equivalent of Alien's cat Jonesy, but he quickly becomes an afterthought.)
With Andrew M. Davis serving as cinematographer, Beck's and Woods' handling of the visuals is so imaginative, and their directorial facility so impressive, that it's all the more disappointing to find Nightlight saddled with such an unsatisfying script. The problem isn't the simplicity of the movie's "Five teens walk into the woods ... " setup; given sufficient talent, that's really all the premise you need for effective low-budget horror. The problem is that it isn't simple enough.
Early on, Chris has a lengthy, exposition-heavy monologue in which he reveals the tortured history of the haunted woods and outlines the rules for surviving them: Keep your flashlight off whenever possible, don't write your name anywhere, and whatever you do, never enter the church. (Chris' ghost-story pause after saying "whatever you do ... " made me hope he'd follow it with " ... don't feed them after midnight," but while we do get an amusingly offhanded Ghostbusters gag, there's no direct reference to Gremlins.) Yet Chris goes on to explain that everything in Covington Forest - the rocks, the trees, the animals - is possessed by the spirits of those who committed suicide there. Not only that, but the teens are advised that these spirits will play tricks with their minds, and they're not to trust what they see, what they hear, or even - with supernaturally imposed narcolepsy being one of the region's side effects - what they themselves do.
Well ... that kind of bites. Because if absolutely anything goes and we can't believe in anything, how are we supposed to find any of this scary? Rules are essential for successful fright films, as is, generally speaking, some connection to real-world experience; imagine how much less terrifying Halloween would've been had we been informed that Michael Myers could not only walk, but teleport and fly. Consequently, Nightlight's "The only rule is ... there are no rules!" stratagem works against the film. Characters fall asleep in one place and wake up in another, the dead lumber around many minutes after they've perished, noses and eyes and fingertips bleed for no reason, unconscious teens levitate, a Groot-like tree figure occasionally pops up, and one twist means as much, or as little, as the next. There's that famous line in The Incredibles: "When everyone's super, no one will be." In a horror movie, when anything can happen, nothing truly interesting will happen.
(The movie's most intriguing bit is actually, in all probability, an accidental one. Near the end of a teary Robin monologue midway through, we suddenly see someone roaming around in the darkness behind her, appearing center-screen and trudging off to the left. He's never referenced and his movements don't suggest anything remotely supernatural, and you're left with the feeling that this shadowy figure - likely a crew member merely in the wrong place at the wrong time - was just an embarrassing, unnoticed-'til-it-was-too-
But sterling technique, and a sense of humor, can outweigh a lot of narrative complaints, and Nightlight has both to spare. Despite the pummeling, predictable bangs and booms that arrive in tandem with shock cuts in this musical-score-less entertainment, the sound design is superb; I particularly liked the strange noise conceived for the flashlight flickering on and off, which is like an electric crackle laced with jingle bells. Beck and Woods also do wonderfully well with their creepy scenes of sustained quiet, and film editor Russell Andrew's cutting is especially strong in the early, lighthearted scenes, punctuating punchlines with such razor-sharp skill that it barely matters whether the jokes are funny or not. (About half the time, they are; the best one has the hopelessly uncool Robin attempting, unsuccessfully, to get in the others' good graces by joining their Twitter conversation: "Do you guys follow the president?!") Flaws and all, the movie is a sturdy genre entry, and an excellent calling card for its gifted writers/directors. Not long into the film, Nia, or maybe it's Amelia, says to the boys, "Whatever this game is, I'm sure it'd be much more fun with beer." I can't really argue otherwise, but Nightlight is still plenty of fun without it.
Nightlight is available on VOD providers including iTunes, Comcast, and AT&T beginning Friday, March 27.