Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mirrors / *½ (R)

Ben Carson: Kiefer Sutherland
Amy Carson: Paula Patton
Michael Carson: Cameron Boyce
Daisy Carson: Erica Gluck
Angela Carson: Amy Smart

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Alexandre Aja. Written by Aja and Gregory Levassuer. Based on the Korean motion picture “Into the Mirror”, screenplay by Sung-ho Kim. Running time: 110 min. Rated R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity).

There is a word that should never be associated with something that is supposed to surprise and even scare its audience. That word is ‘routine.’ For the past decade Hollywood has endeavored to adapt horror films originally made in Asian markets, like Korea and Japan. Most of these movies—often referred to as J-horror—are ghosts stories. In their original versions, they tend to be creepy atmospheric portrayals of ghosts trying to communicate some important past mistreatment to the living. Interestingly enough, the stories depend on the ghosts interrupting the routines of the living and jolting them out of their ignorance of the world’s atrocities. These movies are original and unique in the way they perceive horror in our modern world. In the American versions, their structure and execution are too often the routine aspects about them.

In “Mirrors”—a remake of a Korean movie—Kiefer Sutherland (FOX’s “24”) plays Ben Carson, a former New York City police detective who shot a uniformed police officer while working a case under cover. The details of the shooting remain a mystery but are frequently referred to by other characters with typical comments, like “I stood behind you,” “Nobody doubts you,” and “You’ll get through this.” Yet the filmmakers seem to want the audience to think that nobody believes him in whatever it was he claimed happened.

Ben has gone through all the typical dejection of a fallen hero. At the start of the story it has already been a year since his suspension from the force. He has separated from his wife and family. He has been through the throes of alcoholism and been sober for the past three months. And he’s living on the couch at his sister’s (Amy Smart, “Crank”) apartment.

There is an early expositional scene with his wife Amy (Paula Patton, “Déjà vu”) that works as a great example of the screenplay’s laziness. The couple has a fight about Ben’s behavior since his suspension where no details are discussed, just general attitude. The scene ends with no clear reason for their separation given and Amy screaming at him about how well she supported him.

For all of the lack of detail in the dialog by Gregory Levassuer (“P2”) and co-writer/director Alexandre Aja, the graphic nature of the film’s first scene betrays its own horror value with too much detail. The scene depicts a man slitting his own throat in front of a mirror. His image in the mirror performs the murder while the real man suffers the effects. Aja makes the mistake of showing too much graphic detail of the man’s throat opening up. While the thought of a man slitting his throat will make you squeamish, the sight of it—with its innards and excessive blood—is too unreal and loses its power. Aja had great success in not showing audiences the whole story until the end of his French-made breakthough “High Tension”, but when he remade the Wes Craven classic “The Hills Have Eyes” he proved his inclination for showing the audience too much of the gore to retain the tension of the horror.

Not surprisingly, no one believes Ben when he claims that the mirrors in the burned-out department store where he takes a night watchman job are trying to communicate with him. He decides to look into the history of the building and discovers a secret that could have been told to him by anyone who had ever seen a ghost movie in the past ten years. After a tragedy befalls someone close to him, he discovers that the ghost can find him or his family members through any mirror. Unfortunately, this incident is not exploited by the plot to make Ben’s search for the truth more difficult. It should seem that he is the culprit, but this avenue is never explored.

What strikes me the most about the Hollywood take on these ghost stories is that the ghosts are so insistent on haunting the least credible source they can find. Sutherland’s cop is such a shattered and broken soul himself, why would the ghost feel that he was the answer to its mystery, the solution to its truth. There is a least one other candidate for the ghost to pick on, but the ghost chooses this ex-cop who is possibly guilty of some former crime. Do these ghosts reach out for a broken spirit because it is closer to them? And why do they make the task they have for their victim to perform almost impossible to achieve? Certainly it must be difficult to communicate from the grave, but why make it harder for the living to solve their mystery by destroying his life?

Of course, these are merely general problems I have with this subgenre of horror, but “Mirrors” has some very specific missed opportunities. One involves a nun who provides one of the more intriguing possibilities about what might happen if the ghost gets what it wants, but the theological implications of her concerns are not explored in the film’s climax; instead Ben must engage in an unlikely physical battle with the ghost that ends without any explanation of how the ghost could truly be stopped. And the final scene of the film would have been a welcome exploration of the movie’s theories about the magic behind mirrors had it occurred earlier.

It seems like Hollywood is so eager to embrace the plots of these J-horror movies without ever trying to understand why they are effective. The originals are rarely just moody frightfests—although they do usually contain frightening moments and images—but they tend to explore the lives of the people who find themselves victims of these hauntings. It’s as if the filmmakers are hesitant to explore the true nature of these movies but are content to stick to a routine that eschews their power.

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