For roughly its first 30 minutes, Red Lights looks like it might be one of the most entertaining and original mainstream horror movies in years. Writer-director Rodrigo Cortés—who helmed the clever 2010 man-in-a-box thriller Buried—introduces his witty, fearless protagonists, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver, two university professors who specialize in explaining to people why they aren’t hearing ghosts, and why their children aren’t channeling spirits from the beyond. Then he introduces their nemesis: a blind, unusually gifted “psychic” played by Robert De Niro. Weaver has tussled with De Niro before, and suffered intense public humiliation because of it, but the cocky Murphy still urges her to join him in bringing all their debunking skills to bear.
Red Lights’ setup is silly but fun, with a fair degree of self-awareness that the film’s entire “super-scientists vs. celebrity spiritualists” premise is a hoot. And early on, Cortés puts together some genuinely scary scenes of things going bump in the night, all explained away when Murphy and Weaver (along with gung-go student assistant Elizabeth Olsen) swoop in to expose what’s actually happening. But Red Lights peters out once the fights between good and evil become less intellectual and more physical—and thus more common. As Murphy and Weaver prepare to take on the man who could be the fraud of all frauds, Cortés strains to say something profound about faith, and how it relates to self-determination. Fairly quickly, Red Lights begins to lose the fizzy charm it began with.
One late-film sequence that shows Weaver’s smarmy rival Toby Jones testing De Niro’s powers brings back some kick, and then Red Lights livens up again for a surprise ending. But the movie is a tedious slog in its middle hour, and even its crazy climax doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Red Lights finishes with an exciting bit of showmanship, but it involves the kind of smoke and mirrors that the film’s own pair of academics would skewer easily, without even having to miss their office hours.