I never thought I'd say this, but I guess there's a first time for everything, so here goes...
Writer/director/editor Rodrigo Cortes' paranormal thriller Red Lights should not have played Sundance 2012. In its current form, it should not have played anywhere. It is, as constituted, an unholy mess. It is also the first movie I've ever seen that positively SCREAMS for a simple, traditional, mainstream solution to its (many) structural defects—a process I normally have no faith in, one I believe to have destroyed more American movies in the past seven or so decades than perhaps any other factor in film. After watching this movie, I have gone over to the dark side. Because I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that what Red Lights needs more than any single solution is to be put in front of rooms full of strangers, and test previewed long and hard.
I say this because, contrary to what you will undoubtedly hear from the appalled critical legions who saw Red Lights in its early festival screenings, there is a movie inside here somewhere. In fact, for half its running time, it's already a good one—reminiscent in its own way of The Haunting or The Legend of Hell House which, coming from this writer, is high praise indeed. Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy are Margaret and Tom, paranormal investigators affiliated with an un-named and underfunded university—professional skeptics, out to disprove any and all claims of metaphysical manifestation. The white whale of their calling is a man named Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) a sort of evil Uri Gellar who bends spoons and minds with equal ease.
To Margaret and Tom, Silver is a charlatan, a phony miracle worker, fleecing the gullible throngs and making a mockery of the rational principles they've spent their lives defending. When Silver re-emerges after a long retirement. Tom wants to investigate him, but Margaret won't allow it—they have, as we say, a past. Tom persists, and soon the stage is set for a confrontation between the forces of intellect and spiritualism, reason and irrationality.
In the first half of Red Lights, where the focus is on Weaver and Murphy, this is a fine and thoughtful commercial movie—taut where it needs to be, imaginative conceptually, and with an easy naturalism in the character relationships. Weaver is the lead, but a plot twist tips the movie toward Murphy in the second half, at which point Red Lights goes absolutely bonkers. Everything unique in Cortés' conception and execution is thrown overboard in favor of the cheesiest kind of horror movie tropes—fake scares, torqued up but meaningless dream sequences, and a soundtrack so alive with bumps, crashes, bursts and booms it makes the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan seem like Sea of Grass by comparison.
I don't know just what went wrong here, but I liked what I saw in the early going enough to want to speculate. Indie or no, this is an expensive venture, made by a young and inexperienced director, populated by namey actors and with more than its share of "big" (i.e., pricey) moments. Maybe the young director listened to the wrong advice. Maybe he wanted to swing for the commercial fences. Maybe writer/directors should NOT also edit their movies (contrary to popular belief it has done Robert Rodrgiuez no favors). Or maybe somebody with money on the line intruded into the creative process with the usual line of B.S. —"We need to make this BIGGER!". Whatever the reason, somebody screwed this movie, but in ways so overt they seem easily removable. And since Red Lights isn't remotely an artfilm but rather a genre exercise with theological bite (an honorable tradition) the answer, so it seems to me, is to excavate and accentuate what's good about this film and remove or reduce all the noisey nonsense that mars it so badly.
I address myself now to the distributors who may flee this property when the Sundance reviews hit. Ignore the critics; this will not be a reviews-driven movie. If you pick it up for a sane price, and the director is chastened enough by the very bad decision he made putting his thought-provoking potboiler in front of Sundance hipsters to let you do what needs to be done, you can make money with this movie, and also make this movie better. And strangely, it's the preview card and the scissors that will show you the way.
I now return to the side of angels, never to recommend a test screening again. Good luck, and thanks for listening.
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro
Director/Screenwriter: Rodrigo Cortes
Producers: Adrian Guerra, Rodrigo Cortes
Genre: Paranormal Thriller
Running time: 118 min.
Release date: Unset