RED LIGHTS (2012)
Me? No. Oh, I lapped it up at an early age, having rejected conventional religion (not that I said anything to my Mom about it, of course) but wanting answers, wanting meaning and, with those answers and meaning, some measure of power and control – or at least the illusion of it. ESP, clairvoyance, psychometry, retrocognition, telekinesis, animal telepathy… I was a self-made expert, and many a time I longed for those powers. Also, i had my first real crush on Kim Richards when she played that psychic kid in ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975) (Hey, I was nine at the time, okay?)
Gradually, however, the number of questions that remained unanswered grew, the central question being: why was it that so many phenomenal acts and abilities seemed to go awry whenever examined in the cold light of day and scientific research? And what did those alleged psychics and ESP espousers have to say when they were discovered and debunked? Usually variations on the bullshit sounded off by the same apologists who dismissed religion’s contradictions.
But I’m not as vocal nowadays in my condemnation of either the paranormal or religion, so long as you don’t try to foist either of them on me or my kids. The rational, scientific world is actually pretty amazingly complex and interesting enough as it is, even if I can’t grasp the nuances of quantum mechanics and Silly String Theory.
When I watched the Spanish paranormal APARTMENT 143 (2011) (my review here) I was impressed by the intelligence of the script, particularly in the rational way it dealt with the psychic phenomena occurring in the movie, rather than simply, blithely accepting the paranormal as a given. The script was written by one Rodrigo Cortes, who had directed the 2010 thriller BURIED, the one with Ryan Reynolds in the coffin throughout. And when I heard about his next project, RED LIGHTS, I was intrigued, and hoped that when I did get to see it, it would maintain the standards of intelligence I’d seen in his earlier work. Last night, I did get to see it.
RED LIGHTS opens with Dr Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver, ALIEN of course), a University academic and freelance paranormal investigator, and her assistant, physics academic Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy, 28 DAYS LATER) as they drive to a remote house, where the family is being terrorised by noises, knocks, and in a séance set up by Matheson and the family, a visitation from a spirit who wants them out. Matheson remains objective, while Buckley monitors the séance with scientific equipment and cameras. Afterwards, she quietly confronts the family’s young daughter, who confesses that she and her older sister were responsible, wanting to leave the isolated area and move back to the big city.
Matheson agrees to keep her secret, but still debunks the occurrence, and in a subsequent scene to her students, explains how fake mediums have been able to ‘raise’ tables and perform other tricks (and explained in this manner, it becomes so obvious how people can be so easily fooled). Especially the ones who work the crowds; while debunking another psychic, she points out the ‘red lights’ in the crowd, the psychic’s assistants there to gather information to be secretly passed onto him during the performance. As Matheson says, “There are two kinds of people out there with a special gift: the ones who really think they have some kind of power… and the other guys, who think we can’t figure them out. They’re both wrong.”
Matheson is definitely a sceptic, unlike her colleague Dr Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones, STEPHEN KING’S THE MIST), who is too zealous to want to put his name down on a paper proving that ESP exists. In one crushing scene, she shows him how one psychic had just fooled him with those psychic Zener cards (you know the ones, with the circle, star, square, plus sign and wavy lines). Her biggest mystery is why a talented physicist like Buckley chooses to waste his time assisting her, in her badly-budgeted research. But as Buckley explains to his new girlfriend Sally (Elizabeth Olsen, SILENT HOUSE, and yes she’s the younger sister of those Olsens), he is driven to find answers of his own (in his lab, there’s an X-FILES poster, with the slogan I WANT TO BELIEVE changed to I WANT TO UNDERSTAND).
He gets what looks like his golden opportunity, with the return to the public of psychic Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro, some bit actor with nothing of note on his IMDb entry). The blind, Uri Geller-like Silver was popular decades before, bending spoons and being charming, but then vanished into obscurity following the mysterious death of one of his contemporary critics. Now he’s back, his mystique having been magnified, and is commanding great amounts of money for demonstrations of psychic surgery and healing, all arranged by his manager Monica Handsen (Joely Richardson, EVENT HORIZON, NIP/TUCK).
Buckley is chomping at the bit to confront him and break him. But Matheson is dismissive – almost too much so. And gradually she’s forced to reveal to Buckley that she is fact scared of Silver; he claimed to have ‘made contact’ with the spirit of her son David, in a coma from childhood, intensely jarring her, not because she suddenly believed in his powers, but because, for a moment, he had made her want to believe. But Buckley grows obsessed with exposing Silver – especially after Matheson suddenly dies from a chronic vascular condition, and strange phenomena occur around: birds are flying into his windows, equipment is short-circuiting, he’s having strange out of body experiences, his lab is vandalised, homeless people are drawn to point accusingly at him. But is it a genuine psychic attack from the charismatic Silver, an act of hypnosis, or a psychotic break from reality?
The first two thirds of RED LIGHTS are intriguing and promising, the director having spent over a year researching both sides of the paranormal debate, and keeping his promise to try and provide a balanced view. The acting is superlative and multilayered from all concerned, particularly Weaver, who shows depth as the no-nonsense Matheson (in one scene it’s subtly hinted that she’s jealous of Buckley’s new relationship with student Sally, which would have gone unnecessarily over the top with an actress of lesser talent). Cillian Murphy and Robert DeNiro provide both driven hunger for answers and smooth-tongued charlatanry respectively; this is essentially the three leads’ movie, with the other actors orbiting distantly around them.
However, the movie’s denouement is disappointing. There’s a twist, and admittedly I hadn’t expected it, but it was still anticlimactic. I would not call this a horror movie, or even a supernatural one. It’s not even a thriller, though the trailer certainly wants us to think that, ramping up the music and the high-octane editing. It’s creepy in places, and well-acted with some decent locations (filmed in Spain and Canada), and I would say it’s worth more of a watch than a lot of crap that’s put out in the theatres and on DVD. If you’re expecting answers, though, you’ll be let down.
On the other hand, isn’t that the point?
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Plot: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien