CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: MIRRORS
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(MICHAEL ARRUDA stumbles sleepily into his bathroom. His hair is disheveled, his face unshaven, and there are bags under his eyes. He is wearing Wolf Man pajamas complete with Wolf Man footies. He looks at his reflection in the mirror over the sink, gargles some mouthwash, and looks back into the mirror to see L.L. SOARES glaring at him.)
MA (spits mouthwash and screams): What the &^%$@#%$!!
LS (laughs): What, are you speaking an alien language now? What the hell does &^%$@#%$ mean?
MA: What are you doing in my bathroom?
LS: I rented an apartment in the mirror world, silly. To you, it’s your mirror. For me, it’s my window. Get used to it.
MA: What are gas prices like in the mirror world? Anyway, you nearly scared me to death.
LS: Got to do something about ‘nearly.’
MA: Seriously, that was one scary glare, much scarier than anything I saw in today’s movie, MIRRORS (2008), the latest horror movie from writer/director Alexandre Aja. Aja, as you might remember, wrote and directed the recent remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006), a film you liked better than I did.
MIRRORS tells the story of Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland), an ex-New York City cop who’s off the force because he shot and killed a fellow officer. He’s separated (of course) from his wife Amy (Paula Patton) and his kids. Ben takes a job as a night watchman at an old derelict department store which had burned years before and now needs to be maintained for some reason. I’m not really sure why.
LS: Yeah, in the movie an older security guard tells Kiefer that they have to patrol the building for insurance reasons, but it really doesn’t make much sense.
MA: There are lots of mirrors inside this creepy building, and it doesn’t take long before Ben begins to see and hear strange things coming from the mirrors – sounds of people screaming, images of people burning. Yep, there’s some sort of ghostly or demonic goings-on here, and it’s up to Ben to find out what. At first, he’s just curious, since these bizarre things are happening around him, and it’s human nature to want to know what’s going on. It’s also human nature to say “To hell with this!” and “I’m outta here!” but Ben is a movie hero, after all, so he can’t just walk away.
LS: Pretty early into his job, Ben starts to experience traumatic incidents like cutting his hand on a mirror that spontaneously cracks, and believing he is on fire (and rolling on the ground) even though he’s not. It’s strange how some things (like the crack) have real consequences in the real world (he really did cut his hand) while other things (the flames he believes he was engulfed in) do not (he doesn’t seem to have any burns).
Of course, anyone with half a brain would have quit this job after the first night things get weird, but our buddy Kiefer instead finds himself wanting to decipher the mystery of the mirrors, and he keeps going back, for some inexplicable reason. It’s a pretty flimsy plot, but you’re right, if Kiefer doesn’t go back, there wouldn’t be a movie.
MA: When this unknown threat begins to harm Ben’s family, then he kicks his investigation into high gear to find out what the mysterious force behind the mirrors is, what it wants from him, and how he’s going to stop it before it destroys his family. It all builds to a fiery climax that is a long time coming. There’s even a twist ending that is mildly amusing. I actually liked the ending, but would have liked it more had it come in the middle, and had the rest of the movie been about the revelation made at the end.
LS: I liked the ending, too. I thought it worked.
(HARPO MARX suddenly appears on the other side of the mirror and imitates MA’s every movement)
MA: Hey, knock that off!
(HARPO honks his horn and disappears)
MA: This might sound a bit exciting and I would agree if the emphasis is on the word “bit.” The biggest problem I have with MIRRORS is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Take the main menace in the film, for example, the force behind the mirrors. It’s never clearly defined. For the most of the film, the audience has no idea what the menace is, and this is as it should be, since the first half of the movie plays like a supernatural mystery. But once the evil behind the mirror is identified, it’s explained all very quickly and not all that well. I still don’t understand what it wanted. I know it wanted Ben to find a particular person, which he does, but what that person was supposed to do for this unseen force remained vague.
LS: By the end, I understood what was going on. It wasn’t that hard to understand.
MA (taking offense): Excuse me, Mr. Brain!
LS (huge bloodied brain sticking out of his head): There’s no excuse for you. And seriously, if you didn’t understand this movie, you need to go see it again. Almost everything you claim is missing in the plot is there, if you pay attention.
MA(coughing into his hand): Bullsh*%! Bullsh*%!
LS: But it will also help the viewer if they’re well-versed in the Asian ghost movies collectively known as “J-Horror.” You see, MIRRORS is based on a Korean film from 2003 titled INTO THE MIRROR. And like most of these movies, there are similar images that occur again and again. Like evil children who die young (or appear to) and leave horrific curses behind.
And water. These movies friggin love rooms submerged in water. Personally, I found these overdone images tiresome awhile ago.
MA: I don’t think having knowledge of J-Horror will necessarily help you understand this movie any better. Take the facts surrounding the main building in the story for example. The film does not do a good job explaining who did what when, in terms of the fire which consumed the building. I’m also not sure why the building was still being maintained, when it’s been charred and empty since, I believe, 1952. This building is an important part of the movie’s plot, and to have these questions remain unclear is disappointing to say the least.
LS: Yeah, the “insurance” explanation seems kind of flimsy to me, too. But as for who did what when, it’s all there.
MA: I’m glad it was all there for you. I must have missed it when I blinked. In terms of plot, MIRRORS is very weak. There’s very little creative about it, and what’s there, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
LS: I agree with you, to a degree. This movie isn’t oozing in creativity, because, unfortunately, director Alexandre Aja is kind of weak in that department. He’s not much of an innovator. Which isn’t to say I don’t like his work, or that I didn’t like MIRRORS. I actually liked it much more than you did. But Aja kind of excels at re-imagining the work of others. His first film, HAUTE TENSION (2003), which I liked a lot, bore an uncanny resemblance to Dean Koontz’s INTENSITY (which was a television minieries in 1997 – and there are whole scenes that seem almost exactly the same!). The first film he directed in Hollywood, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, was a remake of Wes Craven’s 1973 classic – and I thought Aja actually improved on the original. So it’s no surprise that MIRRORS, as I said before, is also a remake.
Aja isn’t a fountain of originality, but he is a stylish director who knows how to use visuals. And I really liked the way this movie looked, and its overall sense of dread.
I thought he did that very well.
MA: Which is a long-winded way of saying there’s very little creative about this movie, and I disagree with you about this film being stylish. I didn’t find it visually impressive at all. For example, I thought the scenes inside the burnt out department store were the weakest in the film. I would have thought, considering the setting, that these scenes would have been the most effective. I thought the menace behind the mirrors worked best when it was menacing behind mirrors in the outside world— inside the characters’ homes, for example. I thought this was creepy, and it was probably my favorite part of the movie. Unfortunately, as was the case with other plot points in the film, it didn’t completely work for me because it was never clearly explained how the evil could get from one mirror to another. We’re supposed to believe, I guess, there’s a whole alternate reality behind mirrors. If this was the case the movie was trying to make, it failed miserably.
LS: I don’t agree. I like the scenes in the department store. I wish Aja had made them even scarier though. Of course, once the creatures that live in those mirrors start attacking people in the outside world, it’s even better. What Aja should have done was completely jettison the overly familiar J-Horror back-story, and taken this into a new, fresh direction. If you’ve seen movies like THE RING, DARK WATER (both of which have more water imagery, by the way) and THE GRUDGE, then chances are the second half of this movie will seem very familiar to you.
That said, I think this is one of the rare remakes of an Asian horror movie lately that I liked. I think Aja handles the material well, and the last half hour or so, as Sutherland finally faces the forces that are behind all this, is done well.
MA: I disagree completely. I didn’t find the scenes inside the burned building scary at all. I didn’t even find them creepy. I’m really surprised you liked this one. I thought it was dull.
LS: It probably helped that I actually understood what was going on.
MA: Kiefer Sutherland was okay in a variation of his role on television’s 24, and it’s a good thing he is, because a lot of the movie is him alone investigating the mirrors inside the dark abandoned building. However, his Jack Bauer on 24 is a much more interesting character, and his work on that show is much more intense, and so while’s he’s okay here, we certainly see him much better on TV every week.
LS: I actually thought Sutherland did a fine job with the role. I’m not a huge fan of his, but I think he’s a capable actor, and I think he excels at playing desperate men who feel like they only have one chance left. He has just the right amount of intensity to make that kind of character work.
MA: But not as much intensity as he displays on 24. The rest of the cast I also thought was okay. I did like Amy Smart as Ben’s sister Angela. I believe Smart was also in THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT a few years back, and I liked her in that, too.
LS: You liked THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT? I didn’t realize you were an Ashton Kutcher fan! But seriously, I like Amy Smart a lot, and she’s good in her role here, even if we don’t see enough of her (in more ways that one).
MA: Wipe that drool from your lips. I also just want to mention the presence of Julian Glover in MIRRORS. Glover only has a small role here, as Robert Esseker, the brother of a key character later in the movie, but he has a resume a mile long and a career in movies and television that goes back several decades all the way back to the early 1960s, and a lot of his roles have been genre-related.
My favorite Julian Glover role is the villain Aristotle Kristatos in the Roger Moore James Bond movie FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981), one of my favorite of the Moore Bond films. Glover has also appeared in HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002), INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Among his other genre credits include appearances in classic 1970s TV shows like SPACE 1999, DR. WHO and BLAKES SEVEN. He was also in one of my favorite Hammer Films’ science fiction movies, one of their Quatermass films, U.S. title FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967). Glover’s never been a star, but he’s appeared in a lot of good movies over the years, and his presence has added much to them. (lifts glass in toast) Here’s to Julian Glover and his long impressive career. Keep making those movies!
LS: Which is a long-winded way of saying you’re a fan of Julian Glover. I’m a big fan of FIVE MILLIONS YEARS TO EARTH, too. Great old flick. I thought Glover was good here, considering how briefly he’s in the movie, but he’s certainly nothing incredible. I can think of a dozen old character actors who would have done just as good a job, or better.
MA: But they’re not in this movie. I also thought the gore special effects were rather fake looking and detracted from the scares. They reminded me of 80s horror at its worst.
LS: I thought the effects worked, because Aja knows how to use them to tell a story. Like I said, he’s a very visual director. I thought the scene where Smart dies in a bathtub while she literally torn apart, for example, was pretty cool.
MA: Are you serious? I laughed. The only thing missing was Freddie Krueger popping out of the water! But the biggest detriment to MIRRORS in my mind remains its lack of clarity and poorly written story.
(LS puts his hands around his throat, strangling himself and MA begins to do the same)
MA (gasping): Stop that! I’m trying to review a movie here.
LS: Aww, you’re no fun. (Let’s go of his throat)
MA (gasping for air) Speaking of the poorly written story, my favorite dumb line from the movie comes when Ben’s wife Paula finally sees the weird stuff happening inside the mirrors, and she says to Ben in all seriousness “I should have believed you.” Excuse me, your estranged husband, already unhinged and unstable due to the trauma of shooting a fellow cop, who’s also on medication to help him break his drinking habit, shows up at your house, takes away all its mirrors, paints over the ones he can’t move, tells you he’s seeing strange things inside mirrors, and that there’s a whole other world behind mirrors everywhere and someone in this mirror world is trying to harm him and his family, and he says these things to you wielding a gun in front of your children, and you think you should have believed him?
You should have had him friggin committed.
LS: Okay, I gotta admit, you’re absolutely right on this point. Paula’s saying “I should have believed you” when ABSOLUTELY NO SANE PERSON would have believed Ben, was dumb, and extremely funny, given the circumstances.
MA: MIRRORS wants to be scary and mysterious, but its story is just too muddled to be successful. Therefore, I can’t recommend this movie. How about you?
LS: Well, like I said, I didn’t find it muddled at all. There are some lapses in logic, but overall the story made sense to me. I like Aja’s style, and I think he did a good job despite the J-Horror clichés he had to work with. Compared to other American remakes of similar films like DARK WATER and THE GRUDGE, two weak, PG-13 rated remakes produced by Sam Raimi’s company, I thought this one was creepier and more successful. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Aja was allowed to make an R-rated horror movie. Although, to tell you the truth, I don’t see how it got its rating. The only nudity is a side view of Smart getting into a tub (we don’t even get a full frontal here), and the gore is average for this kind of flick.
I thought Aja could have turned out a much scarier film if he didn’t have to stick to the plot of the original Korean movie. I also thought the very first scene, where the previous security guard (before Ben takes the job) is running from something and confronts his evil image in a mirror was very effective, and a nice creepy way to start things off.
I don’t think MIRRORS is a great film, but I found a lot to like about it.
MA: So, about this alternate mirror world. Does this mean every time I look into a mirror I’m going to see you?
LS: Sometimes me, sometimes them. (points over his shoulder).
(From inside mirror, we see an enormous crowd of people as far as the eye can see.)
MA: What the &^%$@#%$?
LS (pulls out cell phone): I just got The Mirror Network. Can you hear me now?
(First published on Fear Zone on 8/17/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares