A variation on found-footage horror — here, the p.o.v. isn’t that of an actual camera but a flashlight, a pretty silly concept one is best off ignoring — “Nightlight” manages some creepily atmospheric moments. They exist in direct inverse proportion to the amount of yapping done by the pic’s lost-in-the-woods teenage protagonists, often simply and unnecessarily talking to themselves. This uneven new project from writing-directing duo Scott Beck and Bryan Woods is a mixed bag whose scares will play best in a darkened theater, though inevitably it will be more widely seen via VOD. It’s being released in that format as well as opening at 10 U.S. theaters March 27.
After a prologue in which depressed young Ethan (Kyle Fain) records his fragile hopes that things will improve — they didn’t, since the video is framed as police evidence of his suicidal intent — we meet Robin (Shelby Young), whose tie to him we only glean later on. She has driven out with her dog to meet up with four “cool kids” from high school: Ben (Mitch Hewer), a Brit on whom she has a crush; innocuous blonde Amelia (Taylor Murphy); mean girl Nia (Chloe Bridges); and overbearing, sex-on-the-brain Chris (Carter Jenkins). They’ve gathered at night to play “flashlight games” in Covington Woods, which has a reputation (as clumsily related by Chris) for magnetizing unhappy youths whose spirits stay trapped in the forest if they die there.
The fun starts with a game of chicken on train tracks; then there’s hide-and-seek. Mysteriously failing flashlights and weird noises portend malevolent forces that first strike in earnest about half an hour in, with the characters already unwisely scattered for maximum vulnerability. Pic primarily stays with uncool kid Robin (and her flashlight, which turns out to be a significant memento) as she worries the others are deliberately scaring her as a prank. There’s a degree of truth in that, but soon all realize that something else is going on over which they have no control.
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The helmers do a nice job making the setting feel full of menace in scenes where eerie quiet usually means something shadowy is about to move in the background, or dart almost subliminally past our gaze. The relative restraint of keeping any supernatural creatures and most violence just offscreen works well to maintain suspense. It’s too bad Beck and Woods didn’t exercise equal caution in the dialogue department, however: These teens never say anything interesting, but they do jabber on nonetheless. It’s particularly mood-killing when Robin talks to herself, basically narrating scenes as if we can’t already see what she’s seeing or grasp how frightened she is. Fortunately, a last act set in an ominous “old church” (not unlike the dilapidated house at the end of “The Blair Witch Project”) emphasizes threatening action over gratuitous words.
Though there’s no great psychological complexity demanded of them, the actors are solid enough. Assembly is crafty, with a nice look to Andrew M. Davis’ widescreen lensing of the Utah locations, despite the usual handheld, motion-sickness-y aspects of a found-footage-style presentation. There are also good results from the decision to go with an elaborately worked sound design (of ambient sounds, loud “boo!” noises and ominous silences) rather than an original score.