With winter firmly upon us and the dark nights of January enveloping us all, it’s time to revisit some older hidden gems that can be streamed for free. Red Lights is one such example. The cast is packed with a litany of genre actors. It is both surprising and intriguing for those who love a good supernatural story. The thriller is a quick watch that leaves you with as many questions as answers. What really happened with Tom? Is this based on true events? Did Silver have anything to do with the deaths of Margaret, the reporter, or Tom’s attack?
Red Lights from writer/director Rodrigo Cortez, starring Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, and Elizabeth Olsen, is a riveting supernatural thriller that bears revisiting. The ten-year-old film is well constructed, acted, and edited, and finishes with an unexpected twist. It’s currently available for free on several platforms, including IMDb and Tubi. Here is everything you need to know about the ending of Red Lights, the true story, and what it all means.
What happens in Red Lights?
Tom Buckley(Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson(Sigourney Weaver) have devoted their academic lives to debunking those who claim to have paranormal abilities. Dr. Mathesen is a psychologist, and Tom is a physicist working for a university. They track down and study those who psychically heal the sick, speak to spirits, foretell the future, or telekinetically move objects. Any form of mentalism or trickery that claims to be based on extranormal powers are all fair game for their examinations. They are skeptics who don’t believe in ESP or the like. Both are true believers in science. Neither thinks there are genuine people who possess supernatural skills.
The film opens with them revealing one such fake. They then move on to a higher profile fraud. Tom now wants to turn their lens towards Simon Silver, a world-famous psychic who has been out of the limelight for nearly thirty years. In his last show, a reporter who opposed Silver mysteriously died of a heart attack. An autopsy clears him, but Tom has doubts and wants to assess him. When he asks Margaret to make him their next case, she refuses.
Margaret and Tom argue about Silver, and she reveals that she once confronted him and he used her comatose son against her. He made her doubt her decisions and science, and she has never forgiven him. When Margaret suffers from her own heart attack soon after, it seems like Silver might have powers after all. Tom isn’t convinced but begins being plagued by a host of paranormal activities. Tom looks for explanations and determines that Silver has, in fact, been cheating in his shows and the experiments he agreed to be involved with. Silver and his assistant used watches to give coded messages so Silver could pretend to be psychic.
What happens at the end of Red Lights?
After Margaret dies of her heart condition and Dr. Shackleton(Toby Jones) runs a series of tests on Silver, Tom continues to have odd things happen around him. Birds fly into windows, electricity surges, and people behave strangely. In the final act of Red Lights, Silver gives his final sold-out show before retirement while Sally(Elizabeth Olsen) figures out how Silver cheated. Meanwhile, Tom is attacked in the restroom of the show. He is badly injured but manages to get back to the auditorium, where he and Silver engage in some verbal sparring.
Silver is such an egomaniac he has begun to believe his own hype. He threatens Tom, but Tom knows the truth. Silver can not do anything to stop Tom because he isn’t actually powerful; Tom is. The theater lights all explode, and the building shakes while Tom looks on bloody and resigned. The shocked crowd then watches as Tom throws a coin to Silver, catching it in front of everyone. Now everyone knows Silver is not blind and is, in fact, a fraud. Although Silver does not have any God-like abilities, he probably convinced someone to attack Tom physically. Margaret and the reporter’s deaths were just coincidences.
That’s when things get really wild. Tom has actual abilities and has from the beginning. Everyone he and Margaret have ever investigated are fakes, but he is the real deal. He has known he had powers but searched for answers. Tom searched for proof that what he could do was real. This is why he stayed with Margaret all those years. He believed he might find someone like him who would prove his abilities. As the film closes, he apologizes to Margaret for never telling her the truth and takes her son off life support. He then walks outside in the middle of a rainstorm, and it stops raining, indicating that he potentially has impressive powers.
Is this based on a true story?
Although none of the characters depict any specific person, there are many similarities to actual cases of fraud and paranormal claims. In 1986 Reverend Peter Popoff was exposed using radio equipment to listen to the Reverend’s handlers, feeding him information about the people in the audience. A line in the film when Margaret and Tom expose Leonardo Palladino echoes some of the recorded footage from Popoff’s probe. Additionally, Leonardo’s name is a nod to a Victorian-era medium named Eusapia Palladino. There was a famous subject of the Soal-Goldney experiments in the 1940s.
Lastly, another research assistant played by Elizabeth Olsen is named Sally. Sally Morgan is a famous British psychic who many still respond to today. Although there are several apparent allusions to real people and events, there is no Margaret, Tom Buckley, or Simon Silver. There continue to be countless snake oil salesmen who take advantage of desperate people searching for answers and help. The existence of actual paranormal or extrasensory abilities has never been proven conclusively.
This forgotten great deserves a second look. Red Lights is currently streaming for free on IMDb and Tubi, as well as anywhere you rent or buy movies.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.