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Through a glass dangerously
A film review of MIRRORS by Slarek

That Mirrors, a new American horror-thriller from French director Alexandre Aja and starring the still very marketable Kiefer Sutherland, is a remake should surprise no-one, given that there are precious few modern American horror movies that are not at least partial remakes of previous genre works (this is director Aja's second after The Hills Have Eyes, and he's currently working on a 3D remake of Joe Dante's Piranha). That it's a remake of a recent Asian horror work (Kim Sung-ho's 2003 Geoul Sokeuro / Into the Mirror) is unlikely to raise many eyebrows either, as this has been standard operating procedure in Hollywood ever since the Americanisation of Hideo Nakata's Ringu set the box office alight. Unusually, I haven't actually seen the original that Mirrors is sourced from, despite its long-term availability on UK DVD as a 2-disc special edition from Tartan (which I now have every intention of getting hold of, I should say). I'm thus in a position to potentially look upon the new film a little more favourably than I normally would, for once getting the chance to judge a US remake of an Asian horror purely on its own merits. But despite an interesting and even promising fantasy premise, some proficient technical work and the odd creepy moment, the most remarkable aspect of Mirrors for this viewer is the number of things it manages to balls up.

The set-up provides a few clues to the issues to come. Ex-cop Ben Carson starts a job as a night watchman at a sealed-off department store that has suffered an appalling fire in which many of its occupants were burned to death. The interior is badly charred (but structurally sound, it would seem), but Ben notices that all of the mirrors are sparkling clean, apparently the work of his predecessor Gary Lewis, who by this point is dead after slitting his own throat. Except that he didn't, his reflection did, prompting the real Gary's throat to rip open on its own. We know this because it provides an attention-grabbing opening, one that knackers any chance of playing the "what's going on?" game with Ben's initial confusion. Ben soon starts seeing reflections in the mirrors that do not correspond to his reality, burning bodies of the fire victims and trapped figures that he can help to set free. At one point, he appears to spontaneous catch fire, beating madly at the flames and screaming in terror before realising it's all in the mirror. Sorry, but if you were on fire, would you keep looking at your reflection or down at the (non-existent) fire? On the basis that this could be the mirrorworld exercising its physical power in the real world to give Ben a fright, I'll let that one ride. For now.

It quickly becomes clear that the guessing game is going to be played not with what's going but why. As the mirrorworld extends its reach to any reflective surface in Jack's world and its threat to anyone close to him, Ben becomes more desperate – and that's a carefully chosen word – in his attempts to protect his family, removing or painting over every mirror in his wife's house (and she has a LOT of them) and falling to his knees in front of the self-repairing mirror at the phenomenon's epicentre to scream "What do you want from me?!" Luckily, the mirrorworld knows how to communicate its needs. Unluckily, it chooses to do so by providing an obscure clue rather than a clear explanation, giving Ben just a single name and leaving the rest for him to figure out. Lewis was faced with the same task and failed, so what are our Ben's chances? Want to take a guess?

As a concept, this is intriguing but not exactly original stuff, an idea that dates back to the Haunted Mirror episode of the 1945 Dead of Night, in which an ornate mirror reflects the scene of a previous murder and comes close to prompting a re-run with the new occupants of the house in which it now sits. Nonetheless there's potential aplenty here, but it's almost lost here under the sometimes oppressive weight of familiar stock components and cross-genre cliché.

It's quickly established that Ben quit the force following a bad shooting that drove him to drink and split him from wife Amy, who gets pissed off when he drops round to see the kids without clearing it with her first. Their disagreements soon break into rows, and the kids in the next room can do nothing but cover their ears in despair. Won't Mummy and Daddy ever stop fighting? What would it take, do you think, to make them put all this behind them and love each other again? How about a major crisis that threatens the family and casts the three-month sober Ben in the role of hero? Yeah, that might do it. This family unification though major crisis is the same ready-to-wear character redemption set-up used by Steven Spielberg to get War of the Worlds off to a similarly hurried start. Here the path to that moment is littered with familiar narrative arcs and dumb dialogue, as Amy is further alienated by Ben's wild warnings and behaviour (he shoots a mirror he has just removed from her house so that she can watch it heal – it doesn't of course, and only serves to confirm to her that he's gone bonkers), only to later run into his arms when she realises he was right after all and that she should have just listened to her man.

A particularly grisly bathtub death provides the film with its horror credentials, and the extension of the mirrored menace to any reflective surface allows it to go dangerously on the move, but as with the suggestion that even an improvised cross can be used to ward off a vampire, this requires its audience not to dig too deep into the theory, lest they start questioning the threat posed by polished wood, kettles, cutlery and even human eyes. The thriller elements move to the fore in Ben's second-half pursuit of the name demanded by the mirrors, with the expected barriers thrown up and successfully navigated. Ben is helped here by a friend on the force, then the sort of clue even a half-arsed detective should be able to work out (by reading it all out loud to himself, he's able to keep the slower audience members on track) and a plausibility-pushing parcel of goodies sent to him by his night watchman predecessor.

Things really start to fall apart in the final race against time that has Ben chasing the name owner, barking into his mobile phone and almost colliding with traffic in true Jack Bauer style, while Amy does her damnedest to protect the kids from being suckered in and topped by their mirrored doppelgangers. The ghost of Bauer is particularly felt when Ben solves a refusal to cooperate by pointing a gun at the head of the unwilling, prompting an instant and preposterous attitude switch from stubborn refusal to willing self-sacrifice. This all builds to an explosive and unlikely climax that flies in the face of the film's own internal logic, and a final twist that won't surprise the genre faithful but is at least rather well done. Oh and in case you were wondering why a department store could be so haunted, well it used to be a psychiatric hospital that was closed back in 1952 after an inexplicable slaughter. Aha...

It'll all work for some and on evidence of net comments it clearly has, and those who dislike the prospect of complex characters or story twists will find themselves on comfortable ground here. But for this more jaded viewer, Mirrors squanders its high concept on a string of overly familiar off-the-peg components, effectively nullifying the originality at its core by assuming that its target audience will only respond to adventurous ideas if they are wrapped in recycled and unsophisticated packaging.


USA 2008
110 mins
Alexandre Aja
Alexandre Aja
Grégory Levasseur
Alexandra Milchan
Marc Sternberg
Moritz von der Groeben
Alexandre Aja
Grégory Levasseur
based on the film Into the Mirror
Kim Sung-ho
Maxime Alexandre
Javier Navarrete
production design
Joseph C. Nemec III
Kiefer Sutherland
Paula Patton
Cameron Boyce
Erica Gluck
Amy Smart
Mary Beth Peil
release date (UK)
10 October 2008
review posted
17 October 2008

See all of Slarek's reviews