Written and directed by Alexandre Aja of Haute Tension and The Hills Have Eyes fame, Mirrors is the story of Jack Bauer – er, ‘Ben Carson’ (Kiefer Sutherland), a policeman who has been suspended from the force pending an investigation into why he shot one of his colleagues. Reduced to alcoholism and traumatised by a messy divorce, he takes a post as the night watchman at a large, burnt-out department store which was built on top of a psychiatric hospital: something which, of course, wouldn’t be even remotely disturbing to anybody of completely sound mind, let alone a man plagued by visions of killing someone. Needless to say, it isn’t long before he starts seeing things that ‘aren’t there’, and before you can say ‘ugh!’, people around him start dying in mysterious and rather unpleasant circumstances.
It is impossible to provide an adequate review of Mirrors without some gigantic spoilers, such is the nature of what the makers honestly believe is ‘an homage to The Shining‘. We’ll come back to dissect that statement later, but it’s safe to say that if this an ‘homage’ to anything, it’s about fifteen of its predecessors.
My first thought, “Oh, another film which looks like Saw!”, but actually this looks like a cross between Saw, The House On Haunted Hill and The Haunting. In fact, it doesn’t just look like them – in the case of the latter two, it seems to actively borrow bits of plot. Person with mental health issues ends up in totally inappropriate dark scary building; building turns out to be ‘mentally ill’ itself and gets violent; violence can only be stopped by someone dying in a blaze of overblown CGI. While all this is happening you’ll be able to tick off plenty of other entries in your Observer’s Guide to Horror Films – goodness knows this one’s long enough to fit in dozens of references*.
Putting the inevitable comparisons aside, Mirrors starts off quite promisingly on its own merits. It builds up slowly, filling in the audience on the background of the main characters and how the Mayflower store came to be a large crumbling wreck, with a nasty death thrown in for good measure. Twenty minutes in, when we get our first good look inside, there’s a nicely-done scene with some doors opening and closing which I found quite unsettling. But then it starts to lose its way. The CGI, I’m afraid, is terribly obvious from the beginning, so don’t expect the special effects to be worth it. An early scene with Kiefer Sutherland imagining that he’s on fire was so bad that I did wonder whether the flames were deliberately ‘fake’ to show us they weren’t real. Not to mention that Mr Sutherland appears not to have heard of “stop, drop and roll”, or indeed ‘running away’ – the scene wasn’t good enough to convince us that he’s mad or that he’s in big trouble, but just seemed to be an excuse to show off the pretty sets and wallow around in the dark.
We then fall into The Shining. Ben’s wife starts pointing out that he’s on some seriously strong medication and it’s probably affecting his judgement, and then the middle is propped up with a vile death in a bathtub (see below). After that it’s a lot of talking and some ‘Ha! Made you jump!’ silliness, before finally ending up as a ‘good against evil with CGI’ flick via ‘children doing freaky things’ and ‘dodgy backcountry hicks’. Whether you like it or not, Ben Carson does turn into Jack Bauer, holding nuns at gunpoint and ‘trying to save his family’. And there is just FAR too much music. Apparently the composer told Aja that there were places were music wasn’t needed – they must have been few and far between because there’s a gigantic symphony playing at all times and it doesn’t work.
I wasn’t hugely familiar with Aja’s work before watching this, other than briefly owing the DVD of Switchblade Romance/Haute Tension. However, he appears to be developing a pattern of producing films with concepts where (in his own words) “anything is possible”, but the actual exposition turns them into a standard shockfest. The big scene that everyone will be talking about is where Amy Smart gets her jaw ripped off – there’s certainly plenty of making-of time devoted to how it was done in the extras, and Mr Bauer rather enjoys waxing lyrical about it.
The trouble is, this is a small part of a long picture that also happens to be completely unnecessary, as she could have died in any old way. Clearly the intention is to sell the film on this one scene, which no doubt you could have a squizz at on YouTube anyway, and it’s horribly similar to Saw being sold on ‘that’ head-mashing device, or Last House On The Left being sold on ‘that’ rape scene, or Haute Tension and ‘that’ bit in the lorry.
The frustrating thing about Mirrors is that this could have been so, so much more. There is a wealth of material to go at here that genuinely is scary – the desperate worry that you could be going mad and wouldn’t know; the idea that although you exist, other people can’t see you; the catastrophic-yet-subtle effect of alcohol; even the brutal treatment of schizophrenics in the 1950s. But this is a Hollywood movie, and so we got actual demons.
Extras The extras have the same niggly effect as the film itself. The making-of documentary is too long, showing not how a good film was made but how a good film was made worse than it should have been. A segment about the history and mythical significance of the mirror is just ‘intelligent stuff’ thrown to try and elevate this beyond its real level, and the alternate ending isn’t ‘shocking’ in the slightest.
And then there’s ‘that’ quote about The Shining. I didn’t actually like the Kubrick version and I’m probably one of the only people on the planet who preferred Stephen King’s TV mini-series, but to say that this is an ‘homage’ is the French academic way of saying ‘we nicked bits of your plot’. As they weren’t even used effectively, I reckon King could sue for desecration of a great book.
I waited a while before reviewing this and was left with a bitter aftertaste which won’t shift. While I haven’t seen the Korean film this is apparently based on, I suspect it did everything far better and with a subtlety and structure that really did fall on the intelligent side of the fence.
Mirrors, sadly, is another big-budget failure that trades scary for flashy, obvious features that it thinks will make a bigger impact. They don’t.
*Ju-on, Ringu, The Shining, Saw, Saw 2, The House On Haunted Hill, The Haunting, Silent Hill, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Amityville Horror, any number of Texas Chainsaw variants, The Hills Have Eyes, Ed Gein, Dark Water, Alone In The Dark…
Mirrors is released in the UK on May 4th.