Directed by: Alexandre Aja (High Tension)
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart, Cameron Boyce, Mary Beth Peil
Your feelings about Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors are almost certainly going to depend on how you feel about his previous films High Tension (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006). If you found those movies great horror pictures, then this one will undoubtedly disappoint you and then some. If, on the other hand, you found Aja’s previous films repellent, vile and stupid, Mirrors may make you rethink your probable decision to dismiss him as nothing more than Eli Roth with a French accent. I’m very much breaking with the critical consensus on this one, but it’s worth noting that of the very few reviews Mirrors has received (this happens when the studio doesn’t screen movies for critics), nearly all of the bad reviews come from people who praised Aja’s earlier films. Bear that in mind when assessing the consensus.
Mirrors is to Aja’s filmography what Dead Silence (2007) is to that of James Wan (Saw). In other words, this is more along the lines of old-fashioned horror, and it bears little or no relation to the current trend for torture porn. That alone makes the film a noteworthy achievement in my book. That it’s nothing like his previous films—as Aja fans rightly proclaim – is, I believe, a plus. Yes, Mirrors indeed boasts the much-discussed—and endlessly promotable—scene in which Amy Smart rips off her own jaw (a novel enough way of committing suicide), and yes, it’s pretty darn grisly. But hey, I only said this wasn’t torture porn. I never said it wasn’t bloody, gory and graphic. It is, after all, an R-rated horror movie.
This is not a perfect film by any barometer I can think of, but it is a good—albeit derivative—horror picture of the supernatural variety. In fact, it’s deliriously derivative. You’ll find bits and pieces of everything from William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill (1999) to Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill (2006) to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) to large doses of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002). It probably more resembles The Ring than anything else, though it’s certainly refreshing to see one of Craven’s most unsettling (and simplest) effects from the original Elm Street cropping up in a world that too often is given over to CGI horror. Also, this film is a pretty effective mix of these elements, and that counts for much, as does the fact that they’re variants rather than simple duplications.
The story line of Mirrors is no great shakes, though it has the wit to sidestep a couple of seemingly obvious developments that would have been groan inducing. The premise has suspended cop Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) taking a night-watchman job in a fire-damaged department store. I’ll concede that it’s possibly the most skillfully art-directed fire damage imaginable, but it’s hard to deny that it makes for one of the creepiest settings in modern horror. Like his predecessor—whose mirror image cuts his own throat at the beginning of the film—Ben starts having unpleasant encounters with the store’s mirrors. They reflect things that aren’t there—including, when placed right, the victims of the fire in all their burned-flesh gruesomeness. The evil forces at work in the mirrors also invade his life and start killing off those nearest and dearest to him.
Of course, those in the mirrors want “something,” and the bulk of the movie consists of Ben trying to find that “something” in time to save his family (or what’s left of it) and himself. A large part of this works thanks to sheer atmosphere and a truly wonderful musical score by Guillermo del Toro’s composer Javier Navarette. Aja manages to keep the creepiness of the film going most of the time. He falters occasionally when he gets away from the more fantasticated settings of the department store to a strange room in a bricked-up portion of a disused mental hospital and a run-down farmhouse. The “normal” settings just don’t have the same kick and nothing he does to try to goose them changes that. Additionally, the film sometimes crosses over into the near risible—partly through clunky dialogue—but that’s always a risk for a horror film that takes itself seriously, which this one does.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the film lies in the fact that it recognizes the need for a suitably grand finale, though I have to admit that this is something of a mixed bag. The film’s climax is partly beautifully realized—the images are striking and are made more so by the score—but Aja and cowriter Gregory Levasseur don’t quite know when to quit, and the mayhem goes on a little too long (and a little too far down a wrong path) for its own good. Even at that, I found the ending satisfying and exciting—and, believe it or not, the movie even pulls off the kind of tag scene that defeated Silent Hill. It all left me feeling like I’d seen a real horror picture, and not just more mindless torture for its own sake. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity.