PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Red Lights': Paranormal Beliefs and Doubts

At points, Red Lights appears to approach its topic with skill, becoming an enjoyable horror movie.

Red Lights

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Olsen
Rated: R
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-07-13 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-06-15 (General release)

By day, psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and physicist Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) teach at a university. At night, they’re off debunking the paranormal, exposing faith healers and ghost whisperers for the frauds they are. “There are two kinds of people out there with a ‘special gift,’” Dr. Matheson intones. “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.”

Such skepticism is at the center of Red Lights, Rodrigo Cortés' follow-up to 2010's Buried. Where that film held to a bare-bones, life and death premise (Ryan Reynolds in a box), the new one opens out to consider the varieties of experience shaped by belief and doubt. Still, it's most effective when, like its predecessor, it proceeds with a singularity of purpose without getting bogged down trying to balance too many ideas.

At first, the film keeps its focus. We might sympathize with Matheson and Buckley, who contend daily with a world that seems aligned against them. At their university, they must compete against a professor in another department, Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), whose experiments to prove the veracity of ESP draw more funding. This situation also indicates that the movie takes place in a heightened reality, if not a downright alternate one, where paranormal activities and parapsychology are of such importance that a university funds not one, but three faculty positions dedicated to researching the subject. In this world, cable news breathlessly reports on every step of a retired psychic's comeback -- which draws sellout crowds in seconds -- and someone else's doubts about him wind up on page one of the newspaper. When a debunked mentalist finds himself not just issuing refunds -- he’s sent to jail.

At points, Red Lights appears to approach its topic with skill, becoming an enjoyable horror movie. As Matheson and Buckley pull the curtain back on shrieking mediums and prank-pulling kids, the scenes are good fun, mixing genuinely suspenseful moments with laughs at the expense of the gullible. There’s even hints of a romance between Buckley and a student (Elizabeth Olsen): it starts off sweetly, with Buckley performing amusing sleight-of-hand coin tricks for her, inviting her to believe what can't be true.

But the movie soon turns more self-serious, specifically when world-famous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) -- he claims to bend spoons with his mind -- comes out of retirement. Buckley sees him as a viable target for their ongoing work, and wants to expose him, but Matheson, who has had brushes with Silver in the past, says they won’t be able to figure out his tricks.

Their subsequent efforts provide the movie's most outlandish ideas. While De Niro’s performance isn’t too extravagant, the movie appears to take his presence as permission to go over-the-top around him. When Silver is on screen, ridiculousness amps up: the floors rumble, glass shatters, metal twists, Buckley’s obsession with the truth gets less and less rational, people act less and less like real human beings, and everyone starts shouting platitudes.

Instead of treating these events as camp, however, the movie presents them as if we should be taking them seriously. And so, at these moments, plot strands are lost and points are muddied. (Remember that hint of romance? Like Buckley's coins, it mostly disappears.) We start getting speeches about the value of belief and the risk of denying one’s true nature. It’s a slog to sit through.

Red Lights saves itself when it calms down, and a late sequence -- presented as an old-school film reel -- where Silver submits to Shackleton’s tests, prompting different reactions from the different characters based on their personal beliefs, brings the movie back into focus. As Red Lights works its way to an impressive ending it earns, a bit of trickery that doesn’t feel like a cheat. Still, all of the smoke and mirrors that come before this finale might leave viewers feeling skeptical about the whole thing.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.