Director: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Writer: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Producer: Norton Herrick, Michael London, Darren Brandl, Janice Williams
Stars: Shelby Young, Chloe Bridges, Mitch Hewer, Taylor Murphy, Carter Jenkins, Kyle Fain
Five friends playing flashlight games in the woods discover that the forest’s haunted history may be more than an urban legend.
Depressed teenager Ethan has an unrequited crush on down-to-earth good girl Robin. Robin meanwhile, has a crush of her own on beautiful British boy Ben, leaving Ethan in the lurch for Homecoming while Robin elevates her Plain Jane status to hang with the cool crowd instead. Heartbroken, Ethan climbs to the top of the crest in Covington Forest and plummets to his death in the deep ravine below.
Jump forward a short bit and Robin sets aside her guilty grief over Ethan’s suicide to continue a puppy dog pursuit of heartthrob Ben. That means joining Ben’s hopeless horndog friend Chris, prissy bitch Nia, and mousy Amelia to play a flashlight game of hide-and-seek in the same woods where Ethan took his life. Except Ethan’s restless ghost isn’t willing to let Robin off the hook so easily. Neither is the supernatural evil already haunting the forbidding forest, where dark spirits lurk to paranormally possess Robin and her flighty new friends.
“Found footage” has been a subgenre long littered with completely dismissible claptrap, though “Nightlight” finds at least one way to separate itself through the uniquely bizarre conceit of being filmed from the POV of a flashlight instead of from a camera. Filmmakers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods cheekily, if not illogically, cut off common “found footage” questions of “why are they still filming?” and “who edited this together?” by presenting a “found footage” premise that there never was any footage to be found in the first place. No handheld camcorders. No cellphone videos. Rather, the audience sees action unfold from the perspective of a Maglite bulb and oddly, that is the extent of the explanation necessary.
By this point in time, horror audiences are so familiar with the first-person format that even when rational fiction justification strikes a bone of contention, requiring a reason for a camera’s existence melts away because either the fantasy becomes immersive or greater gripes make themselves known. In the case of “Nightlight,” it is a little of both, though maybe more of the latter than of the former.
Once the initial snicker of “am I really watching this movie through a flashlight?” quiets down, “Nightlight” temporarily trips over the first of two awkwardly-included suicide diary bookends before hitting the woodland ground running. For 25 minutes, “Nightlight” fills a promising first act with a fast setup and faster action, including a game of chicken with a speeding freight train and an unexpectedly quick demise for a principal character. Coupled up with several setpieces involving crashing trees and snapping snakes later in the film, each executed with varying degrees of effectiveness on the CGI, “Nightlight” has more structure and ambition to its thrills than your usual lost in the woods and jumping at shadows fodder.
Until the tempo hits a mudslide where characters begin falling unconscious repeatedly, prompting viewers to consider doing the same as pacing takes a pause and scares degrade into a heavy downpour of loud crashes and sudden screams. For a short while, “Nightlight” looks to be treading an interesting path of offering well-timed jolts even when inventiveness falls short. Then it abandons pursuing a sensible story to settle for limiting appeal to the same age group as the teen troupe depicted.
The introductory origin and backstory bringing the fivesome into the woods are fine enough. Yet in linking ghostly goings-on to a secondary character’s suicide, “Nightlight” creates a wonky motivation for supernatural revenge. Robin didn’t bully Ethan or lead him on teasingly. She said “no” when asked to a dance because she was attracted to another boy and not to her platonic friend. Killing one’s self over such a rejection is one thing. Terrorizing someone from beyond the grave because she wasn’t interested is another.
This weak connection isn’t essential to moving plot points forward anyway. If I’m willing to forgive that I’m watching a movie telescoped through a magic flashlight for no reason other than “just because,” I’m willing to accept that these kids are caught in a cursed forest without a clunky spurned lover angle getting in the way.
Beck and Woods’ script has little in the way of substantial subplots since once Robin and the others start fleeing for their lives, character development heads for the hills and “Nightlight” runs through the motions of typical “let’s split up and encounter paranormal activity” weirdness. The cast does what it can, the staging and cinematography are up to snuff, but overreliance on gotcha moments for generating jumps and a story nosediving to disappear off the same cliff as Ethan lends an unfortunate hollowness to the horror.
“Nightlight” is far from a complete disappointment, even with its gimmicky presentation excused. Divide a line through the “found footage” pile and “Nightlight” can still have a spot somewhere near the bottom of the top half as decently intentioned and executed well enough to a point. Except even with a middle position as an average entry in the subgenre, and no matter what anyone thinks of its value as entertainment, the movie’s most distinguishing characteristic is that it will forever be known as “that found footage flashlight flick.”
Review Score: 60