Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Monday, February 09, 2009


Cast: Keifer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Mary Beth Peil, Jason Flemying
Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur
Produced by Alexandra Milchan, Marc Sternberg, Gregory Levasseur
Directed by Alexandre Aja

Ben Carson (Keifer Sutherland) is on extended leave from the NYPD after accidentally shooting a man. This tragedy has left him a broken man, a violent tempered alcoholic who has alienated everyone around him including his wife (Paula Patton) and children who have left him. He moves in with his sister (Amy Smart) and tries to put his life back together again by taking a job as night watchman in the old, rundown Mayflower Department Store. Ben very quickly learns that there is a terrible secret within the dark mirrors of the burned out building, secrets that seem to involve an old insane asylum that once stood in its place and a demonic force that kills all those it enchants. Ben soon discovers that only he can stop the evil force which seems bent on killing his wife and children as well.

In Dario Argento's Suspiria Udo Kier tells Jessica Harper that "bad luck isn't caused by broken mirrors, but by broken minds". Well after making the by-the-numbers and just plain silly Mirrors, director Alexandre Aja might think otherwise. He was on a lucky streak for the last few years, with the international success of his debut feature Haute Tension followed up by his American debut, the remake of Wes Craven's The HIlls Have Eyes. That film was the only one of the current spate '70s cult horror classic remakes to actually improve upon the original. But now it looks like it'll be at least 7 years before he'll be able to sweep up the pieces of this broken mirror.

There are many reasons why a film fails to work given the best intentions of its creators. Aja seems to have wanted to transcend the genre with a film that's partly a character study and, indeed, he and Sutherland work well to create a portrait of a man on the brink of a complete nervous breakdown. But these dramatics and long scenes of boring exposition do not sit well when weaved together with screeching demons and fiery deaths.

The most significant problem is the subgenre itself. Mirrors is a classical ghost story, a narrative tradition with many specific and familiar conventions. Subtlety is the driving force of these stories. A realistic setting and characters are slowly and very methodically invaded upon by events that may be supernatural. Often there is a mystery involving some dark secret in the past that must be solved and only in the very end are the angry spirits finally given their due and put to rest.

Currently it has been fashionable to rework this tradition within the commercially popular form of J-Horror. But this is a clash of cultures that does not work as well as it should. The problem is that the classical ghost story is logical as far as any story involving the possibly living dead could be. The ghost or ghosts are causing trouble for a reason. A reason it takes the hero 90 minutes and three acts to discover. However, in Asian horror the ghosts are far more malevolent and inexplicable. There is very little reason and the only logic is that of a nightmare.

Many of the greatest horror films play out on this level. Films as diverse as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr to Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and Dario Argento's aforementioned Suspiria do not tell so much as suggest the plots of their cryptic stories. By focusing their films on mood and atmosphere, they side step most of the silliness that comes from characters talking to each other about "vampires", "witches" and "demons". The horror is more abstract and therefore more personal. The nightmarish mood isn't dispelled every time the local professor is asked, "So, tell me, just what ARE werewolves?"

Aja is a filmmaker singularly unsuited to the classical ghost story. His brand of horror is driven by savage, torturous violence and in your face blood-letting in the great French tradition of Grand Guignol. Had he tossed out the needs of the classical ghost story and focused on creating a nightmare of the fantastique he may have created a film that could stand proud next to those by Dreyer, Coscarelli and Argento. He certainly had the visual imagination to pull it off-the design of the abandoned Mayflower hotel is hard to forget. As it is now, though, the film suffers from being pulled in too many contradictory directions.

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