Did you follow the blood trail?
—Detective Williams (Tucker Smallwood)
“You’re smoking again.” Grace (Lupe Ontiveros) is disappointed when she discovers her daughter’s hidden stash of cigarettes. But Deb (Lisa Vidal) reassures her: “Not really,” she says, “Just once in a while.” And if her mother only knew—as you know—what Deb’s been going through lately, well, she might forgive Deb the occasional relapse. It’s not easy living in a haunted house, after all.
At the start of Dark Mirror, available on IFC’s Festival Direct On-Demand starting 6 May through 4 August, Deb is just looking at what will become her new home. At first, driving through a sunny Los Angeles neighborhood with her husband Jim (David Chisum) and young son Ian (Joshua Pelegrin), she’s reluctant to commit to a new place. She’s passed on 14 houses already, and Jim urges her to give this next one “a chance.” She does more than that, as she finds her way immediately to the front windows, where the bright light is at once filtered and nearly blinding. Asked whether she wants to see more of the place, she demurs. “We’ll take it,” she asserts. Startled but pleased, Jim goes along. At last, he can settle in to his new job as a generic “computer programmer,” assured that the wife will hold down the home front.
Suffice it to say that nothing that follows goes as planned—which is not to say it’s not predictable. The family’s early days in the new place appear unspeakably happy, marked by Ian’s wide smiles and slow-motion scampers trough the light-suffused hallways. Deb and Jim spend a few brief moments sharing in Ian’s delight—playing “scary monster” chase games as they unpack and arrange the furniture—but her peculiar relationship to the house soon surfaces in ways she doesn’t anticipate—but you most certainly do. Indeed, the most unexpected element in Dark Mirror is the sheer brightness of most every shot.
Deb’s own interest in light is at least partly professional. A photographer trying to make her way back into the workforce, she’s especially aware of the effects of light—flashes, shadows, warped perspectives. When she finds that taking her own portrait in the bathroom mirror produces a couple of disconcerting effects. Not only does the image of repeated Deb’s appear to recede into infinity, but the zappy flash also extends, as if somehow imprinting a dazzling whiteness onto her mind. Even more bizarre, however, she notices an alteration in the door supposedly behind her. When she tries to show the anomaly to Jim, however, he’s instantly impatient. “It’s not the same door,” she insists,” “it’s a different door.” He’s tired after a long day at work, and dismisses her like any wife in a scary movie: “I’m fucking tired, okay? I’ll look at your imaginary door tomorrow, I promise.”
Seeing that Jim will be of no help, Deb proceeds to investigate herself. This brings her to consider her (predictable) neighbors—the lonely old lady who peeps through her window (Mrs. Yoshida, played for her 30 seconds on screen by Juliana Rong), and the self-described exhibitionist Tammy (Christine Lakin). Inviting her new neighbor over for apple martinis, Tammy likes to sunbathe in the front yard and parade around in heels and a bikini. An actress and model by trade (“I also do some singing, but not professionally”), Tammy is apparently built to be looked at, which makes her a seeming perfect foil for Deb, who prefers to look. And indeed, she provides Tammy with the just the sorts of worries that tend to plague women who spend too much time alone in scary movies: she flirts with Jim, laughing too loudly and pressing against his chest as Deb watches through her fabulous front windows.
It happens that these windows have their own significance, though this remains somewhat incoherent. The glass, Deb informs her mother during one of her several unexpected visits, is “imported from China,” a point of fact that Grace translates: “It’s feng shui,” she says, inspiring Deb to research the term: mirrors along the window ledge protect against evil spirits, the women conclude. “The spirit is attracted to the glass but when it gets too close it’s trapped inside.”
This bit of plotting does come to bear on Deb’s experience in the house, but it’s hard to tell exactly how. Among the mysteries of Dark Mirror is just how the Chinese glass is connected to her camera, her photographs, or the film’s ostensible inspiration, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir, Dark Mirror, which pits Olivia de Havilland against herself as a twin sister.
Pablo Proenza’s version does raise the spooky specter of doubles and reflections, as well as photos and paintings (turns out that the house was once inhabited by a painter who “disappeared” mysteriously with his family some years back). But it doesn’t sort out or even much explore Deb’s seeming dilemmas—difficulties finding work in a town where the only studio to which she applies is run by a couple of misogynistic dolts and in sorting out her strained relationship with her mother. With all this going on, it’s no surprise that she loses track of Ian (as does the film, which uses him mostly as an object to be menaced) and her increasingly jumbled self-image.