Norman-born filmmaker pushes ahead with new horror

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From the mid-90s to the early 2000s, the horror genre was down and out. Plagued by constant remakes and sequels, horror seemingly hit a plateau in its widespread commercial appeal.

With the 2004 release of James Wan’s “Saw,” the industry began to shift. Wan’s mega-popular nail-biter — made for about $1 million — earned over $100 million in theaters, and spawned six sequels.

Since his overnight success with “Saw,” Wan went on to direct “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” launching two more Hollywood horror mega-franchises. Produced by Wan, this month’s release “Lights Out” is clearly in a prime position to be one of this summer’s hit horror films.

“Lights Out” expands David Sandberg’s three-minute YouTube viral sensation into a full-length feature film. Sandberg remains on board to direct, with Norman native Eric Heisserer (“Hours,” “Final Destination 5”) by his side as a writer/producer.

“Lights Out” is gaining significant traction with its online marketing campaign, as millions flock to the film’s riveting trailers. Starring Teresa Palmer (“Warm Bodies”) alongside veterans Maria Bello (“Prisoners”) and Billy Burke (“Twilight”), “Lights Out” examines one of humanity’s basest terrors — fear of the dark.

The theme is simple enough: A malevolent spirit named Diana appears whenever the lights go out. Stay in the light, and Diana is powerless. Fall into darkness, and you fall into her hands.

The literal interpretation of a symbolic darkness is one of the crucial factors that makes horror work as a genre, as Heisserer explains while describing his writing process.

“What I found most helpful in David [Sandberg]’s ideas was the thematic core of the monster,” Heisserer says. “He linked Diana to clinical depression, which is something families tend to keep in the dark anyway.”

This theme is deeply relevant to our current society, one in which mental illness remains highly stigmatized, despite significant social progress in other areas. Depression can be a demon infinitely more powerful than anything we see on a movie screen. Tapping into that in a horror film seems as clever as it does inevitable.

Of course, having James Wan on your team never hurts these days. 

“James came aboard shortly after I did,” Heisserer said. “He was a great help during the embryonic stages of this movie, because he’d been in our shoes before.”

The Australian Wan became Hollywood’s resident horror master by creating three smash-hit genre franchises, while also finding the time to direct “Furious 7,” the sixth-highest grossing film ever made to date.

“One thing I’ve learned from James is how he builds tension in horror,” Heisserer said. “Everything escalates, where you get one teeth-rattling moment that leads to two more.”

Heisserer and Wan were also careful to retain the human element in “Lights Out.” 

“We legitimately care about the characters in the story,” Heisserer said. “These aren’t disposable teens, these need to be real people. Smart people.”

Heisserer isn’t about to slow down, as his next film “Arrival” — based on Ted Chiang’s legendary short story “Story of Your Life” — is due to hit theaters in November. Starring Amy Adams (“Man of Steel”) and Jeremy Renner (“The Bourne Legacy”) — and directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) — “Arrival” is a project Heisserer spent years chasing.

“Arrival” is a science-fiction film, based on the concept of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life forms. Chiang’s source material is deeply rooted in linguistics, which doesn’t often translate well to the screen. Heisserer remains highly confident in the “Arrival” team’s ability to adapt “Story of Your Life” into an impactful film.

“It’s been my dream project,” Heisserer said. “Amy Adams is a revelation, and Denis elevated the story to work on a cinematic level beyond what I could have hoped."

The official trailer for “Arrival” is set to arrive — pardon the pun — later on this month.

It’s an exciting time to be Eric Heisserer. From growing up among us in Norman, to becoming a major player in Hollywood, it’s already been a heck of a trip. Based on every indication, Heisserer’s wild ride is only beginning.

The November release of “Arrival” is still four months away, and for now, Heisserer remains firmly focused on “Lights Out.”

“Sandberg had a clear vision for a feature based on his own short,” Heisserer says. “As a writer, if I have a theme plugged into a story, I know how to write both the drama and the scares.”

Pairing Heisserer’s screenwriting knowhow with Wan’s track record of turning successful horror films into strings of commercially viable sequels, it certainly isn’t crazy to imagine “Lights Out” becoming the latest financially fortunate fear franchise. If it does, Heisserer will be right there at the helm, helping to steer the ship.

Who knows? Ten years from now, you could be reading this very same column, by this very same author, in this very same space, discussing “Lights Out 7: The Lights Outening” with Heisserer. By that point, he will likely have moved on to bigger and better things, retaining the enigmatic license of an executive producer of the franchise.

For the time being, keep your eyes on the shadows. When you least expect it, Diana is most certainly lurking.

“Lights Out” is in theaters nationwide beginning July 22. 

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