Mirrors (2008) reflects badly on the horror genre

Mirrors have an endless fascination about them. Beyond the obvious temptation toward narcissism, there is the intriguing imaginary possibility of a parallel world on the other side of the looking glass, a mirror realm where every object has its duplicate – or is it opposite? Who among us does not dread the thought of confronting our own doppelganger – the vertiginous sense of dislocation inherent in such a confrontation would certainly guarantee a quick descent into delirium of confusion: Are we seeing our soul externalized, our counterpart from an alternate universe, our evil twin? What would we say to this reflection – and more importantly, what would our reflection say back?
You will not find any of these intriguing questions asked, much less answered, in MIRRORS, the new horror film from French director Alexandre Aja. Aja (who earned a cult reputation with the 2003 gore film HIGH TENSIO, a.k.a.Haute Tension) apparently thinks that metaphysical speculation is for wimps; his audience wants red meat, and he’s going to give it them, no matter how inappropriate it is for the subject matter at hand. Things get off to an “exciting” start with a gratuitously gory prologue in which nightwatchman Gary Lewis (Josh Cole) sees his own reflection cut his throat – which causes his own arteries to sever in loving lingering shots, blood drooling in glorious color across the screen.
The sequence is at least as misguided as the prologue in Aja 2006 remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES; in fact, it is probably much worse, because it undermines the what follows, which focuses on a replacement nightwatchman named Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) who begins seeing strange things in the mirrors of the burned-out department store where he works – things that might or might not be real. As in THE SHINING (1980), the narrative strategy is to ease the audience into the supernatural by initially presenting it as the hallucinations of a recovering alcoholic and then gradually allowing the accumulation of evidence to corroborate the visions as genuine.

Problem is: we know from the prologue that the visions are real, so the deliberate build-up of the first act is rendered pointless. (It is as if THE SHINING had begun with a prologue of Grady killing his family while being egged on up the ghost in the Overlook Hotel – and then expected us to wonder whether Jack Torrance was merely seeing things.) But then, gradually building tension is for wimps, too, as is atmosphere and the uncanny thrill of the supernatural. Aja’s target audience will simply refuse to sit still for this kind of thing, so it is absolutely necessary to lead with the bleed, trust that it will placate the gore-hounds, and just hope the narrative details will sort themselves out one way or the other.
There is some initial interest as the film deftly characterizes Carson as an ex-undercover-cop who quit the force after accidentally killing another officer. Estranged from his wife Amy, living with his sister Angela, he gets the nightwatchman job as a sort of second step toward recovery (after quitting the booze). Since we have reason to doubt his mental stability, the early scenes work up a decent level of tension (although the computer-generated rippling effect on the mirrors suggests less a gateway to another world than a television on the fritz1). As Carson makes his rounds, hears noises, and catches glimpses of things that are not there, we are safely in Turn of the Screw territory: Is he seeing ghosts, or is he cracking up?
Unfortunately, since we already know the answer, there is little reason to examine the clues closely for evidence that supports one reading or another. Instead, we just go along for the ride as he tries to convince his wife and his sister that he is not crazy. Sensing that the drama is growing boring, Aja tosses in a special effects set piece in which Angele takes a bath while her mirror image rips off her jaw. The effect upon the real Angela, achieved with some rubbery looking prosthetics, is unfortunately reminiscent of the deliberately comic makeup effects for Ash’s extending chin in ARMY OF DARKNESS.
Far worse, the scene reduces MIRRORS to the level of a crude gore movie. You cannot treat a character as an excuse for a makeup effect and then expect the audience to register any kind of emotional reaction to Ben’s grief over her death. Why should the viewers care when the filmmakers so obviously do not? To them, Angela is not a person, not even an imaginary one; she is simply a beautiful body to be rent asunder for the sake of a cheap gross-out.
After this, there is little left for the film to do but run through its paces in a mechanically efficient but utterly soulless manner. With the ghosts threatening Amy and his kids, Ben uncovers the source of the haunting and tracks down someone who can help, a nun named Anna Esseker. Anna used to be a patient in a hospital on the site where the department store now stands; her doctor’s rather novel therapy consisted of strapping her into a chair in a room surrounded by mirrors.
Unfortunately, Anna was not really schizophrenic but possessed, and the demons for some reason jumped into the mirrors, where they were trapped (although when you think about it, they are hardly trapped – they can travel to other mirrors in other buildings). The only way to appease the demons is to bring Anna back so that she can be, literally, repossessed. Reverting to Jack Bauer mode, Sutherland’s desperate ex-cop forces the reluctant Anna at gunpoint. (What a guy!)
We’re supposed to cut Ben some slack because he is trying to save his family (preserving one’s DNA obliterates all moral considerations, under the mask of protecting Family Values), but it is hard to work up much sympathy for such a synthetic Hollywood family, including the traditional “hot” wife, played by an actress (Paula Patton) who is ten years younger than Sutherland and is prone to walking around in tight, low-cut blouses. As if that were not enough, Aja contrives to get Amy’s clothes soaked into near transparency while she and her children are under assault in a home flooded with water, turning the floors into reflecting pools). The special effects and imagery are nicely handled in this sequence – up to a point. When Amy is reduced to helplessly splashing her hands in the water, she looks more like a chld throwing a tantrum than a mother rescuing her child.
Just in time to save mom and the kids, the demons leave their mirror world and re-enter Anna – which predictably turns out to be a huge strategic mistake, a demotion in power that no right-thinking supernatural force would ever willingly undertake. Now instead of being able to appear in any mirror, anywhere, and kill at will, the demonic entities can only make Anna jump around like one of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. (The final confrontation between here and Carson, set in a dank corridor, seems like a direct lift from either the cellar in EVIL DEAD 2 or the underground pit in ARMY OF DARKNESS – take your pick.)
Sounds like redemption, right? The alcoholic ex-cop saves his family in the nick of time, and now everything should be all right, shouldn’t it? No, you haven’t been listening to me: redemption, like everything else, is for wimps. You’re not actually supposed to care about Ben Carson or what happens to him; he’s just a punching bag, or better yet a target at which Aja can throw his darts. Needless to say, he has one more left in his hand, and he lets it fly. When it strikes, what’s left of the film pops and deflates into a pile of empty rubber, a piece of trash good only for the dustbin.
As practised by Aja and his cohorts in the Splat-Pack, the post-modern horror film has had it; as a sub-genre it is completely dead and worthless. Not only do we know the traditional dramatic tricks that post-modern films deliberately manipulate; we also recognize and expect the deliberate manipulation. Verisimilitude is treated as a con game to be exposed, but the exposure itself has become an even bigger con. The filmmakers do not care, and they do not expect you to care. Just buy your ticket and sit through the boring exposition, characterization, and drama in the hope that the odd gore scene will interrupt the tedium.
Forget about expecting any kind of catharsis; the only satisfaction offered is that of the knowing wink and nudge: You expected a happy ending – well, f-ck you, wimp!Except, we do not expect the happy ending. We expected the unexpected – the trite twist, the last-reel reversal, the deliberate downer. Back when George Romero hit us over the head with the latter (in 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), it was a devastating shock; now it is just another arbitrary ending, played like a winning trump. The problem is: although Aja has somehow earned a reputation as a card sharp, we knew he had the ace up his sleeve sleeve long before revealed it. If this is the best he can do, he should probably hand the deck to someone else.

Kiefer Sutherland's ex-cop distrusts his own reflection.

MIRRORS (2008). Directed by Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur, basedon the Korean film INTO THE MIRROR. Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Mary Beth Pei, John Shrapnel, Jason Flemyng, Tim Ahem, Julian Glover, Josh Cole, Ezra Buzzington.

  1. One cannot help wondering whether this television-like rippling effect is some vestige from THE RING or THE GRUDGE, in which ghosts actually did manifest through television sets.

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