Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Mary Beth Peil, John Shrapnel, Jason Flemyng, Tim Ahern, Julian Glover, Josh Cole and Ezra Buzzington.
Screenplay by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur.
Directed by Alexandre Aja.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 110 minutes. Rated R.
French director Alexandre Aja has a savvy eye for horror and is able to create atmospheric scares. This is how he was able to graduate from cheapie French exploitation films to the reasonable star power of this mid-budget potboiler. (Star Kiefer Sutherland may be known better for television than film at this point of his career – but at least he is well-known.)
However, this is the second film Aja has made in the US since the stateside release of the atmospheric French slasher film High Tension in 2005 (it was filmed in 2003). That film was rather good, if sabotaged by an absolutely awful ending. Neither of his American films has come close in quality to that breakout, though. First, he did the mutated-killer remake The Hills Have Eyes and now he is doing a variation on the old haunted-building scenario.
Watching Mirrors rather reinforces my gut reaction to Hills – the guy is stylish and technically gifted, but he is also rather twisted and much too sadistic for my taste. Aja is a strong proponent of the complete gross-out school of horror. He has never heard of building suspense or using the power of the imagination. Instead, Aja luxuriates in showing us every possible gaping, bleeding wound and each bubbling pustule. He is trying to make mutilation into an art – apparently not realizing that for most people it is ugly and off-putting.
Aja is definitely a member of the torture-porn film squad – see also the Saw and Hostel movies. As that style is falling into disfavor (Mirrors barely made a ripple in the box office), he had better broaden his stylistic palette or he will be left behind. This would be a shame, because the man does have the technical skills to be a reasonably good filmmaker – if only he could reign in some of his more disturbing tendencies.
In Mirrors, Aja is adapting a 2003 Asian horror film called Into the Mirror by Sung-ho Kim. Like most Asian ghost stories, Mirrors plays fast and loose with the rules of hauntings. The ghosts follow their victims home, for example, and also attack family members who never set foot in the haunted Mayflower – a fire-ravaged Manhattan department store which had previously been a mental institution where a horrible tragedy occurred in the 1950s.
Despite the fact that the department store is a burnt-out ruin, the owners insist on having 24-hour guards who check the entire huge building every couple of hours. It seems a little extreme. I suppose that they are trying to avoid having vagrants, but by the way the lot is locked down and the mess that the place is in, I can’t imagine even the most down-on-his-luck squatter would have trouble finding a better place to crash.
Then again, the whole premise seems awfully shaky. Are they suggesting that a burnt out and structurally unsound building which appears to take up at least a whole block of prime Sixth Avenue real estate would be allowed to sit empty and unused for years? Not in the New York I know. It would be knocked down and turned into a high-rise office building in a matter of a year. However, okay, we’ll allow the filmmakers their conceit.
The new nighttime security guard is Ben Carson (Sutherland), a recovering alcoholic former cop who has been suspended from the job since mistakenly shooting a fellow officer. He is estranged from his wife (Paula Patton) and children. Ben is sleeping on couch at the apartment of his sister (Amy Smart).
Ben sees the job as a good, easy way to make some money as he tries to get back on the job. Within a day, though, he starts noticing mysterious things on the job. First handprints start appearing on mirrors. Then screams cry out in the night. Soon he is seeing all sorts of burning, dying people in the mirrors of the store.
Instead of doing what any normal, rational person would do when he starts seeing flaming ghosts and quitting on the spot – maybe taking a temp gig as bank guard or a bouncer until he gets his fulltime job back – Carson is determined to keep going back to figure out what is going on. Bodies start to pile up, but that just fuels his determination to find the evil force at the store – even if it puts himself and his family in grave danger.
It seems obvious that Aja is trying to take The Shining and ratchet up the horror – and yet he really hasn’t learned the lessons of that much more satisfying classic film (or the wonderful book that spawned it.) Many of them are basic flaws – he has lost the sense of isolation and shock and much of the ghost story makes little sense. The ghosts in The Shining caused the humans to create the mayhem; in Mirrors the ghosts themselves are mostly doing the killing. And, if you get technical, they are not really ghosts, anyway.
Even more importantly, Aja has not learned the single most important rule of horror filmmaking – to make the characters likable and sympathetic. If you don’t really care for the people involved, it doesn’t matter as much if they live or die.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 14, 2009.