If we weren’t already aware of Hollywood’s brain dead inability to fashion such a conspiracy, one would swear that Tinsel Town was out to destroy horror once and for all. Their weapon of choice? The J-Horror remake. Their intended targets? Foreign filmmakers who’ve proven they can master macabre with a diligent, dread-induced professionalism. In the last year alone we’ve seen the talented combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, responsible for the terrific thriller Ils, helm the horrible Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye. Now, Alexandre Aja, fresh from proving he could take on even the most tired material (in his case, the Wes Craven quasi-classic The Hills Have Eyes), is given the god awful task of updating the Korean creeper Into the Mirror. That he almost succeeds suggests an untapped talent that no studio suit can truly stop.
For suspended police officer Ben Carson, life couldn’t get more complicated. Six months sober, and desperate to keep connected to his family, he’s sleeping on his sister’s sofa, hoping for some kind of redemption. Taking a job as a security guard in a burned out department store, he starts making amends. Unfortunately, the former New York landmark known as The Mayflower has other ideas. While the rest of the building is a disaster, the mirrors are all polished and pristine. Seems the previous rent-a-cop had an obsession with keeping them clean - that is, before he died by his own hand. The location also has a sinister history, one connected to an old mental hospital, a crazed doctor, and a great many deaths. Soon Ben believes he is being haunted by the reflections - and once they’re done with him, his wife and children appear to be next. His must unravel the mystery to save his, and his family’s, lives.
Mirrors is a minor success, meaning it’s a pretty big failure as well. Any premise that can zap Alexandra Aja of most of his visceral viability should have been left in the secretary’s “Out” box with the rest of the rejected scripts. While the director does find a way to breathe new life into an old design (haunted object bringing grief to those interacting with it), he still can’t shake the staleness of wandering back into someone else’s ideas. What semi-sinks Mirrors is this derivative déjà-vu. If you’ve seen one Asian horror film (and its eventual American adaptation) you’ve pretty much experienced the entire genre, and no matter how hard he tries, Aja can’t shake the sameness. But thanks to some inventive locations, and the director’s attention to detail, we wind up with an effort that’s intriguing - at least until the puzzling finale.
Aja clearly adores the burnt out Mayflower building that stands as the film’s main set. He lovingly frames the introductory shots, and takes his time roaming the melted mannequin interior. During these initial sequences, Mirrors maintains a nice level of trepidation. Since we are getting an opportunity to see something new and unusual (urban ruins, so to speak), we drink in every moment. As Carson, Kiefer Sutherland offers good flashlight acting. His quiet scenes inside the structure, discovering the various frightening facades that surround him, more than make up for his occasional hyperactive outbursts and shouting matches. This is one actor who believes all dialogue is only deliverable in a whisper or a scream, and the hamfisted qualities can be overwhelming at times. Sutherland is not alone however. Most of the cast respond to problems with an overdone amount of angst.
On the other hand, Aja really does understand the basics of movie morbidity. He gives us nice and nasty gore, the red stuff flowing freely out of massively gaping wounds. This is especially true of Amy Smart’s death. As Ben’s sister, she literally pulls her jaw off in one of the most unsettling sequences ever. Elsewhere, when we finally learn what’s “possessing” the place, the showdown between ‘It’ and Ben is handled in expert fright fashion. It’s instances like this when you wonder what Mirrors could have been. You think beyond the standard mystery paradigm to envision something that expands beyond the scope of your typical scary movie.
And yet Aja can’t salvage everything. There is a palpable feeling of studio meddling here, a desire to tone down the atmosphere and increase the idiocy. The film suggests - at least, towards the beginning - that Carson may be suffering from some manner of drug based side effect. It would explain his hallucinations inside the Mayflower. The concept is explored for a second before being shuttled aside for more clues. Similarly, British actor Jason Flemyng appears as a friendly cop willing to help Ben uncover the truth. But he is so poorly introduced, and lacks any real connection to the cases, that we wonder why he’s so gracious. As with the unexplained issues within his family (Sutherland and onscreen wife Paula Patton seem to absolutely hate each other), much of the subtext seen in Mirrors is mitigated for…frankly, it’s rather unclear.
Indeed, when one goes back and tries to recall what takes the place of necessary cinematic facets like backstory and clear characterization, the substitutions become fuzzy indeed. We know there are times when Carson must visit a monastery, and he does take a trip through a collapsing wall into the old haunted hospital, but unlike other sequences of suspense, we seem to be dragging our feet here. Nowhere do the answers add up to something solid. By the end, we are shocked to learn of the real reason for the haunted glass. While successful and satisfying in a bugf*ck Exorcist kind of way, the lack of logistics really brings everything down. In the end, we sense a situation stifled by mandates from the moneymen, along with a sorry attachment to the source.
Still, fans can rejoice at what Mirrors actually ‘reflects’. For all the hate leveled at his grisly Haute Tension, or the last act bravura of Hills, Alexandre Aja may just be the next generation of fear authority. When one’s aptitude shines through even the most lax commercial creepshow, there’s an anxiousness for a return to foreign (or perhaps, independent) soil. Of course, his next project is an odd choice indeed. Supposedly, Aja will be working on a 3D version of the cheeseball Piranha movies from the ‘80s (that noise you just heard was the collective “huh” from the genre fanbase). As long as it helps him achieve a level of artistic leverage, he can make all the dumb and/or derivative movies he wants. Mirrors may not be the best example of his work, but it does show what an artist can do with even the most improbable motion picture parameters…up to a point.