Buried was one hell of a horror film, restrained or not, it attained a terrifying level of suspense. That wonderfully directed film by Rodrigo Cortes opened the door up for him to tackle bigger projects and Red Lights is just that. His third film challenges the con artists who manipulate people’s beliefs of the mysterious. Psychologist Margaret Matheson and her assistant, Tom Buckley, are successful at revealing these ruses and the earlier parts of the film goes to great lengths to divulge how people make séance’s and the unexplained possible. Seeing the duo discredit these deceptions with psychics and rationality is fascinating. Solving all the cases and forgeries turns what could be seen as cynicism into realism, Matheson states that in the thirty years she has done this job, she has never come across something truly indescribable.
Even so, these investigations play second fiddle to their relationship. Before establishing the history or lack therein of these characters and the MO of their university department, great lengths are travelled to articulate the chemistry between the two. That is until Simon Silver returns 30 years after his biggest detractor mysteriously died from a heart attack during one of his shows, his arrival immediately stirs up long forgotten feelings and new conflicts and it’s here where to film starts to fall to pieces.
Ghosts may be one of the central targets, as one would expect from a film squarely focused on mystics, psychics and the like, but the more significant developments revolve around the extra sensory perception of Simon Silver, and his tense battle of wills with Tom Buckley. Underneath the cynicism of Cortes script illuminating these fakeries and artifices, there is a theme. Whether there is truly such a thing as the unexplainable. Using misdirection in the approach to the unknown, Cortes’ satisfyingly builds up the suspense. Adding to this, there’s a conflict between rationality and optimism about what is terrorising Buckley in the latter half of the film. Even without this doubt, there is enough to fill the quotient for a thriller to be thrilling.
It is thrilling and finely driven by suspense, nowhere near as strong as Buried, but enjoyable nonetheless. Which is contrary to the plotting in this second half which does make sense, but it has all the finesse and poise of M. Night Shyamalan, or someone with an equal lack in refinement.
It does descend into low-grade supernatural thriller in the latter half, despite the efforts of the strong cast to keep the film afloat. Sigourney Weaver (Matheson) may not be best actor in the world, but when she is bouncing off the forever reliable Cillian Murphy (Buckley), it is easy to forgive her shortcomings. Robert De Niro also appears in one of his “and” roles as Simon Silver, and he does chew the scenery. Which in any other context would be a slight on the actor, not here; the grand over-dramatic monologues that constitute the majority of his dialogue can only be delivered this way. It’s not a good De Niro performance, but it’s a move in the right direction after his sojourn into comedy.
Lesser names in the cast are Elizabeth Olsen and Craig Roberts, both of whom deserve all the success in the world. Here, however, their inclusion is convoluted at best. Olsen plays Sally one of the most inquisitive students in Matheson and Buckley’s class and as quickly as she is introduced she becomes one of the paranormal investigators and just as quickly, Buckley’s love interest, only to disappear quickly after. As good as she as at everything she does, she feels like she is here for no reason other than to explain the rules of paranormal investigation, which is doubly true for Craig Roberts.
Just like the haunted house stories which red lights rubbishes, the final third is a mess of exposition. Cortes’ builds the tension and suspense masterly up to a point where Silver and Buckley face off. Up to this point the film has unfolded in such a way that you are ready to believe the implausible, Cortes presents his work with glowing assurance. While Silver and Buckley do face off, the execution and the fall out of this scene damage the film beyond reproach. Big dramatic monologues are well and fine but to build up in such a way only to close with a wordy to and fro, is a huge anti-climax.
Then take that disappointment and overdub a narration track which explains what happened in the film and replays snapshots of the scenes you should have paid attention to. This simply ruins the film. Cortes might be a talented director, but he is going to have to considerably up his game if he wants to be more than a one-hit wonder.