Not that they don’t deserve our spite, but it’s a shame there’s so much cavilling about Asian horror remakes, because it’s starting to turn into rhetoric against Asian horror in general. Our irritation at Hollywood’s “re-imaginings” has seeped into the actual source material; some people now judge the movement by its fucking remakes, or by the worst of its originals, not by its best, which are legion. I for one won’t stand for it. Joshua Jackson and Jessica Alba do not have enough presence to dilute the richness of fare from Japan, China, and Thailand. Their products are especially wan imitations of recent Korean movies, many of which are primarily dramatic films with elements of horror — a fact that puts off foreign viewers looking for something more generic and fast-paced. If we have to cram things into categories, I’d have to say that the Korean flavor of Asian horror is my favorite, thanks to substance-first, formula-second numbers like A Tale of Two Sisters and the Ghost School Trilogy, which are big-boned, full-fleshed stories about character, relationship, country and past, and which make the Pang Brothers’ output seem tinny by comparison.
So it’s with regret that I haven’t seen Kim Sung-Ho’s Into the Mirror (2003), the film Alexandre Aja and Kegger Sutherland decided to square peg up a gnat’s sphincter for the His Nips viewers on my continent who take their meals pre-masticated. But I hear they’re stealing from the best. Kim’s film never made it onto Region 1 DVD, unfortunately, so readers looking for a point-by-point contrast in this review will have to look elsewhere — I’ve never come across a copy, despite its glowing reception at home and its place towards the top of many Best Of K-horror lists, which mention Kim’s film in the same space as some of my favorites. It’s too bad piracy is a crime, or I’d ask a generous connoisseur with better bandwidth to help a woman out. But that would be wrong, so do not send a subtitled VLC or R1 DVD copy of Into the Mirror to PO Box 905, Ogdensburg, NY, 13669, whatever you do.
Another no-contrast drawback to this review is the fact that I haven’t bothered to check out Aja’s other work, so I walked into Mirrors minty-fresh. This is either the best or the worst way to approach a film, depending on who you ask. In any case, it didn’t wind up making me any more forgiving once I realized I was watching another middling horror movie that isn’t bad enough to stomp the gut-sack out of, but hardly strong enough to recommend. It’s the worst kind of horror-flick offender, in fact: despite its dingy palette and banshee sound effects, it’s as scary as the peach pie I just ate while sewing up this review. In Aja’s rendering, Sutherland plays Ben Carson, a disgraced detective who takes a job as night-watchman of an abandoned New York City department store. Carson has the usual Hollywood-thriller baggage — a bitter wife, a guilt complex, and a drinking problem — which Aja tries to soap into a lather, but which comes off as by-the-numbers in his version (these clichés may be treated more thoughtfully in the original).
The department store in question was the site of a fire that killed dozens of people, and Carson spends a quarter of the film sifting through murky rooms that were built to feed consumerism as luxuriously as possible, complete with wide mirrors, plush benches, and a squadron of sconces and lamp-bearing cupids. Aja and his Romanian set-dressers spent a lot of money and hours sullying plasterboard to create an ashy, decaying interior, but somehow the shell of the Mayflower Department Store lacks personality and doesn’t have any more texture than its CGI exterior. It’s a forced atmosphere that doesn’t deliver, even when Carson starts to see images of burning victims in the building’s mirrors. Carson’s world extends outward to include a wife (Paula Patton) and children estranged by his drinking, and a sister (Amy Smart), who lends him a couch while he gets his life back together. When the angry spook in the Mayflower’s mirrors fixates on Carson, it drags his loved ones into the fun-house.
Mirrors is too formulaic in its first half and too silly-overwrought in its second to merit a glance from horror lovers, never mind our praise. It might have frightened me into the arms of Christ when I was twelve, but it relies on too many flapping-pigeon bursts and Repulsion-esque hands pushing out of walls to earn my adult respect. There’s too much melodrama, and too little we don’t see coming a mile off. But Aja nevertheless gives us a few noteworthy vittles, like a title design that features bird’s-eye views of a New York split by mirrors; a rousing version of Albéniz’s “Asturias” as backbone to the score; and an especially ghastly death involving a bathtub and a forcibly split jaw (Aja also coddles gore-hounds with a full-frontal neck-slicing that holds nothing back). I was also semi-interested in the character of a supposedly schizophrenic girl named Anna, but only because I’ve always been a little soft-bellied about feral children onscreen — that last scene in Sleepaway Camp made me wet my pants when I was a kid, and that was just lame ol’ Sleepaway Camp. When Carson is shown a cellar room where this particular feral child was stashed by her parents — before she was stashed in an asylum — I admit the fingers of old nightmares briefly grazed the back of my neck. It’s no spoiler to disclose that the mirror-spook is connected to an abandoned psych ward, since we’re told five minutes into the film that the department store was built over the remains of a hospital; if you don’t see this particular development coming, how’s that isolated atoll working out for you? The Ring’s Samara was hardly the first (re)incarnation of the nutbarn jerk-ghost, or the jerk-child possessed by a demon, or whatever other variant we know and love to hate. Viewers who have a palate for this angle have now been armed with the selection data they need.
The contrast effect can be a bitch, though, for Aja’s little also-ran. Never mind the inevitable comparisons to either version of The Ring (on meagre grounds, if you ask me) or to Kim’s original. The contrast that actually squelches Mirrors under the weight of its shadow is generated by Brad Anderson’s Session 9, a much better haunted-hospital flick that benefited from the use of an actual building: the recently demolished Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. Session 9 also made more convincing use of asylum records and taped sessions with lunatics, and the bare hallways of the hospital, littered with rotting therapeutic gadgets, are infinitely creepier than Mirrors’ contrived mannequins and gargoyles. As much as I hate playing compare-and-contrast and not judging a movie on its own terms, memories of Session 9 kept leaping up and slapping Kiefer Sutherland’s stupid frat-face (who himself labors under the perpetual contrast-shadow of his magnificent sire).
It’s unfortunate, but the existence of gems like Session 9 — not to mention, if reputation is reliable, Kim’s movie — makes pap like Mirrors irrelevant and ineffective, to the point where you feel a little robbed. It doesn’t even really do justice to the old lore of mirrors as gateways in and out of the supernatural realm — it fribbles with a venerable horror convention and sucks the life out of it. In a way, the title of the film is appropriate, because the cinematic mirrors that compromise Aja’s movie with their own reflection are everywhere, and they can’t be painted over as easily as Carson paints over the glass in his children’s bedrooms. My viewing of Mirrors was bracketed by viewings of No Vacancy (surprisingly taut) and Rogue (the best monster-croc flick since Lake Placid), both of which have more tension and atmosphere in the gleam of their eye than Aja’s film has end to end, and they aren’t even all that exceptional in their genre. Mirrors, in sum, is so hollow a movie that you spend little time looking at its actual bulk, and more time being distracted by what its bulk reminds you of. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 16, 2008.)