NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Like last year’s The Awakening, Red Lights opens with a psychic investigation that exposes a hoax. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver), named for novelist Richard Matheson rather than ET screenwriter Melissa Mathison I presume, is an underfunded sceptic whose Occam’s Razor approach to the supernatural makes her unpopular with the credulous crowds. In a parody of the X-Files, she has an ‘I Want to Understand’ poster in her office. She gets less support from her university than a weaselly rival (Toby Jones) whose parapsychology department is in the business of verifying the paranormal. Assisted by physicist Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and a couple of students played by Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Craig Roberts (Submarine) – which suggests a really on-the-ball casting director – Margaret always looks for the fraud or the natural phenomenon. She takes only a few minutes to puncture an Amityville-type haunted house, spotting the door-banging mixed-up kid and the exploitative would-be medium, and walk away. Like the equivalent character in The Awakening, she gets little thanks for it. Understanding the disappointment felt by the semi-willing victims of the hoax, writer-director Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) has to tread carefully here – realising that it’s almost impossible to pitch a film that only delives cold hard sense about psychic phenomena.
For the purposes of a horror movie, we’re prepared to suspend disbelief … which means that sceptical characters we would listen to in the real world become irritating, delaying the moment when everyone can just agree that Regan is possessed or there’s a vampire on the loose and get on with the story. However, an issue I had with The Awakening was that it established an intelligent heroine whose attitudes were so admirable that when the ghost story intruded and she was warped her into a believer it seemed a betrayal. It’s possible to feel the same about Night of the Demon, Night of the Eagle (scripted by Richard Matheson) and many another excellent films, though they tend to make their sceptics arrogant, unlikeable men who deserve to be shaken up. The weight of the genre is such that you wish just once there’d be a movie in which the sceptic was the hero and proved right all along. Even The X-Files would have been a stronger series if, in the first season or two, there had been a couple of cases with rational explanations that shored up Scully’s worldview before it was overwhelmed by mutants, aliens, ghosts and miracles. For much of its running time, even though it keeps the question of belief in the balance, it seems that Red Lights will at last deliver the pro-common sense angle. Weaver, far better here than in time-serving gigs like Abduction and The Cold Light of Day, makes Margaret a complex and interesting character, a sensible woman beleaguered by a world that wants its harmless stage magic even if, under examination, it’s not so harmless. Cortés exaggerates for effect the credulousness of the media, scientific establishment and general public, though it may also be that the Spanish filmmaker is poking dark fun at the irrational streak in America.
Nemesis emerges in the shape of blind celebrity psychic Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro, similarly upping his game after a run of take-the-money gigs), a fork-bending seer who comes out of retirement for a stage tour and offers to let Professor Shackleton (Jones) subject him to a battery of tests. Silver is a wonderfully sinister, ambiguous character – as he puts it when asked about a sceptical journalist who died at his last performance, his detractors have the problem that they tend to say simultaneously that he’s a fraud and that he somehow has the power of casting a death spell. Early enough in the film for it to be a shock, Margaret dies mysteriously, and the focus switches to Buckley, who digs deeper and deeper into the case, tormented for reasons which only become clear in a final what-really-happened montage, and tries to find the ‘red lights’, the out of place signs that tip observers off that a fast one is being pulled.
The last reel offers several surprises. One is obvious but still fiendishly amusing (you’ll guess it if you know The Prestige or remember classic whodunits) and revealed in Silver’s genuinely clever way of pulling off a telepathy stunt. The other major twist unhelpfully turns the film around from something unusual into something okay but on more familiar ground; it now forms a loose trilogy with George Pal’s The Power and Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To – which is actually a cool achievement. Ultimately, Red Lights trails off and leaves too much in the murk – the specifics of Silver’s racket/cult aren’t clear, and for plot purposes it’s necessary that the baddies be murderers as well as fraudsters so we can really hate them. However, Cortés has a Lynchian ability to present unease in dingy hotel corridors, underlit theatres, lecture halls and alleys. Murphy steps up a notch as a charismatic lead when it becomes apparent that heavyweights Weaver and DeNiro are in support and there are a great many unsettling sights and sounds. With nice, sinister bits from Joely Richardson (Silver’s minion), Eugenio Mira (doing a spot-on 70s DeNiro in flashbacks) and Burn Gorman (an aggressive psychic on a talkshow). Like Buried, this is a powerful, intense, well-acted film which doesn’t quite come off – but that puts it ahead of a lot of dully unambitious pictures.