Screenplay by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard, based on a short screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Seidman
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Karen Gillan: Kaylie Russell
Brenton Thwaites: Tim Russell
Katee Sackhoff: Marie Russell
Rory Cochrane: Alan Rusell
Annalise Basso: Young Kaylie
Garrett Ryan: Young Tim
It's tough to make a movie about a cursed inanimate object. I never did get around to seeing the Amityville Horror sequel where the menace is an evil floor lamp. I don't know why people would be afraid of a floor lamp. I mean, yeah, it could fall on you or something, but there isn't a lot of cultural content to go along with a lamp. You can't say the same for mirrors, though, and it does make sense to use that as the basis for a horror movie. Having a mirror do something impossible means you can show weird visions or grinning evil versions of the characters looking into them. If you don't mind risking mercury poisoning for the entire cast and crew you can even rig up an effect to make it look like the mirror's surface is a doorway, not a smooth glass plane. And there are certainly more people worried about mirrors than about floor lamps (my college roommate Andy turned out to be freaked out by mirror gags in horror films; I didn't know that when I showed him Prince of Darkness, but I did when we watched Phantasm later--in other news, I'm a bit of a jerk).
So when I saw the WWE Films logo in front of this movie, I felt a kind of resigned cautious optimism. I don't think every movie they touched is automatically doomed to fail, but I don't think they're going to be the second coming of AIP either. But using a cursed mirror for the menacing thing in this movie means they're at least starting from a position of relative strength. Also, there aren't any wrestlers in this film, so nobody's going to solve the supernatural problem via suplex.
The movie starts in medias res, with a preteen girl and younger boy trying to sneak out of their house after seeing a man with a gun walking through. The boy sees a spectral girl with radiant white eyes as his sister struggles with the doorknob. The boy's panicked yell for his sister attracts the gunman, who shoots his sister in the face. But at the gunshot, the movie switches to a therapy session where Tim Russell turns out to have been describing a recurring nightmare of his--but this time is the first one where he is the gunman rather than a victim. The therapist views this is a sign of genuine progress for his patient, and there's an edit in mid-sentence where the shot switches from two people alone in the therapist's office to a discharge hearing at the psychiatric facility where Tim was being held. He's going to be let go on his 21st birthday, which makes me hope that there's a lot of support waiting for him on the outside or things will be ending incredibly badly.
Elsewhere, Tim's sister Kaylie is at an art auction looking at an ancient mirror formerly owned by the British royal family. Ten grand is the starting bid, so unless she's a software entrepreneur or something I don't think she's going to take it home with her. She leaves to go pick up her brother from the bughouse and Tim's therapist reminds him to be patient with everyone on the outside, because he won't be used to the unregimented world they live in and he won't have the continuing mental-health care that he had while locked up. He's told that his recovery is more important than forging bonds with his family, which sounds pretty reasonable to me, honestly.
Meanwhile, back at the auction, the admittedly very impressive mirror goes for sixteen grand to a person bidding via Skype. Kaylie kisses her husband and goes off to pick her brother up at the Home for the Emotionally Bewildered. Tim hesitates at the threshold when the door buzzer goes off, but eventually takes his first steps out into the real world. His sister takes him out for a non-institutional lunch, slides him a check for his half of "the estate", and gives him a list of studio apartments so that he moves into a place that isn't intimidatingly large. Kaylie also gives her brother an open-ended invitation to live with her and her fiancee until Tim figures out where he's going to stay. Somewhere in that mess he'll need to learn how to drive, too; I imagine that wasn't something that got taught at the mental hospital and he's been there for at least a decade. Tim's overwhelmed by everything, and it comes out that he took his sister off the "permitted to see patient" list while he was recovering and working some stuff out in his own head. Kaylie says she understands completely, and then whispers "I found it," to her brother, whose face falls.
Turns out that mirror is something she was trying to find for a good long while, and there's a few days where they can destroy it--though Kaylie uses the word "kill". Then the movie shifts to "eleven years ago", which means that Tim wound up going to a mental hospital when he was ten years old, and it also means that something horrible is going to happen to the Russell family in the flashback scenes. But at first all we see is a neatly choreographed scene where the camera glides through the house that the Russells are moving in to and introduces Young Tim and Young Kaylie as well as their parents (and a couple of extras playing the movers tote a couch through the room--I hope it was a prop rather than a real couch and I really hope they didn't need too many takes).
The movers bring in that ancient mirror from the auction scene in a protective frame; Early Model Tim and Kaylie are screwing around with toy laser guns and getting underfoot right when the movers are bringing in the most breakable thing the Russell family owns, of course. Their mother Marie says they can either go outside if they're going to be rambunctious or work off energy helping move stuff. That ominous looking mirror winds up in their dad Alan's home office and they wind up taking the path of least resistance, which is also the path out the front door.
Back in the present day, the recently released Tim has decided to stay in a hotel room, at least at first, and Kaylie says he made a promise never to forget what really happened. He counters by saying ten-year-olds don't swear oaths that adults should be held to. Kaylie needs his help, though. But she leaves him in the hotel room regardless, leaving him looking into the mirror over the dresser.
Back in Times Past, Marie and Alan settle in for a little lovemaking in lieu of continuing with unpacking their possessions. During a late-night snack run (the fridge is distressingly empty and all the cupboards appear to be bare), Alan sees a woman with mirror-bright eyes standing in a hallway, until he doesn't. He winds up with juice-box punch all over the front of his shirt which might well be some kind of foreshadowing. If Tim's dream from earlier is a replay of something that really happened, Alan's going to be flipping out later and that mirror-eyed woman will be the cause.
The film sets up two parallel stories, with Kaylie and Tim in both of them. It's quite neat to see the way the film shifts between the bad stuff that the audience knows is coming in the past and the current-day efforts to destroy the mirror. And since an actor is the same age when they're filming no matter when the scenes are set, you can have scenes like the nightmare where current-age Kaylie gets strangled by her father, who doesn't look a day older than he did eleven years ago trying to murder his family. I'm going to credit Mike Flanagan with the strong visual style here--the IMDB shows that he made a couple of documentaries and edited several more movies than he directed. That resume would suggest that he knows how to impose a narrative on the existing film that he's got, and that he knows how to craft sequences that someone else shot so he'd have a better idea of what he wants to make the movie stronger when he's in charge.
Speaking of that nightmare, Kaylie has a sobbing, screaming freakout when she snaps out of it and her husband calms her down--he says it's "just one of your night terrors," which suggests that it's far from the first time he's been detonated out of a solid sleep by his wife's psychological damage. He seems to be authentically gentle and caring, too, instead of being put upon and resentful (which is pretty awesome; usually people in horror movies are jerks). At work that day, Kaylie gets a reprimand from her boss / fiancee about printing out crime scene photos on the network computer, and also that she's requisitioned the mirror, which is called the Lasser Glass. She says she's going to repair it, but she's really going to fix it good. The last thing she tells him (re: printing out bloody corpses with company supplies) is that things are really weird right now thanks to her brother getting out of the hospital, but they'll be better in a couple of days. Well, that sounds perfectly fine and the rest of the film should be about her plans working out and everything being okay.
At the auction house's storeroom, Kaylie is alone with the mirror--which is cloudy and discolored--and greets it with a "Hello again," before saying it must be hungry. That crack in the bottom-right is apparently something that she or Tim inflicted back in the past. Good. Also, she sees draped-over statues moving behind her when she looks into the mirror, so there's that "movie shows people seeing things" effect I was talking about at the start of the review. And given Mike Flanagan's strong visual sense in the film so far, I'm really glad he's the one coming up with things for the mirror to do. And that he's starting small. And that he wrote a sequence where Kaylie figures out that the mirror is making her see things, which plays out silently. He trusts the audience to understand what he's doing and the moving statues are quite subtle. Which is how you want to start things, because if you start with the Creepiness Dial turned up to eleven there's no way to escalate things. Tim calls his sister asking to meet up and talk. She decides to meet at the house they used to live in; anyone watching in-universe would wonder why Tim was the one who spent time in a mental hospital, I think.
Back in the past, Mrs. Russell is distressed to find that all her houseplants are dying. I don't know why exactly the mirror is doing that (does it hate chlorophyll?) but it's one of those creepy supernatural effects that doesn't need a direct explanation. It's enough to know that it's happening without needing to bog the story down in why it's happening. In the home office, Alan starts hearing faint whispers from several voices and Kaylie notices his reaction (as well as a glimpse of the mirror-eyed woman), but doesn't do anything about it because she's outside and maybe twelve years old. Though she asks about it over the dinner table, which goes poorly in a low-key manner.
When Tim and Kaylie get to the old house in the present, Kaylie brought a small dog along as some kind of supernatural warning system. Tim's keeping things together pretty well, considering he hasn't been there in ten years and was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility after what he saw there in the past. It turns out that Kaylie wound up owning the place thanks to a quirk of the probate system following the unspecified but horrible events of the past, and was even living there for several years (!). She and Tim get the mirror inside as part of her plan to destroy the thing. The room it gets set down in also has three video cameras and several computers set to record whatever manifestations show up. There's also a heavy, sharp metal thing on a fixed rod bolted to the ceiling--Kaylie says it's a yacht anchor and it looks like when she gets what she wants from the cameras she'll trip a switch and it'll swing down into the mirror. I'd say she would need to worry about seven years of bad luck but considering that her father's only shown up in nightmares and her mother hasn't even done that, I think she's got some credit to burn on that score.
Tim says he'll stick around to help with Kaylie's mirror demolishing project, as every single audience member thinks that just breaking it now while there's time is the much smarter move. After all, whatever influence the mirror had over their parents in the past is working on Kaylie now--she saw things that weren't really happening in its reflection seconds after looking at it at the auction house. Kaylie starts documenting where and when she and her brother are, detailing all the different precautions being taken to document her own behavior via the cameras so she can look at them later and see what went down if the mirror makes her hallucinate. She's also got a land line and two cell phones to call for help if that becomes necessary. Honestly, other than it being a patently bad idea from the start she's got a pretty good plan going. There's also food, water and timers set to remind Kaylie and her brother to eat and change the tapes in her cameras. She's really going all out in order to prove that the Lasser Glass is a cursed object and that its effects can be quantified.
Tim tries to stop his sister, who tells him that all the cameras have to keep rolling for her to have a complete record of the experiment and then starts giving the history of the Lasser Glass as she was able to uncover it (her summary only goes back to the middle of the 18th century, but according to Kaylie there are 45 known deaths traced to the mirror's influence). The rich and famous owned the glass at various points, with some of its owners burning to death, some starving, and others dying of dehydration in a bathtub. During the list of horrible ends the mirrors' owners wound up suffering an alarm goes off and Kaylie declares a snack break. During the break Tim sticks to the official story about his father being the killer rather than a cursed mirror provoking him to homicide. The deaths connected to the mirror get odder and odder as the years go on, all of them still physically possible but done for no discernible reasons.
Kaylie's wrapup gets to 2002, when her father owned the mirror and kept it in his home office. Two weeks after the mirror went up on the wall, Marie Russell is tortured and murdered. Tim breaks into the story to mention that his father killed his mother and he killed his father; even if it was under the mirror's influence, he pulled the trigger on the gun that ended his father's life and his dad was holding the knife that he used to murder his wife. It's vitally important to Kaylie that the record be amended, that her father is remembered as a victim rather than a killer. Tim votes for destroying the mirror now while they have the chance, but Kaylie wants justice as well as revenge. She tells Tim to take a shot at breaking the mirror with a kitchen chair, but he puts it down before he takes a swing at it. Kaylie says it's the mirror using a mental whammy to defend itself (and has one more case file about what happened to the only person to try and break it, back in the early Seventies). But her sharpened boat anchor on a stick is connected to a thirty-minute timer that will release the booby trap if it's not reset. If the mirror provokes her or her brother to commit homicide or suicide, no more than 29 minutes remain for the object to stay in one piece.
Now that the stage is set for the present-day story line, it's time to go back to 2002 and watch Alan Russert lose his shit inch by inch. There's some incredibly nasty wet sound effects as he hallucinates trying to get a stubborn bandage off his fingertip (eventually revealed to be him taking the nail off with a staple remover), and the mirror whispers to him that it doesn't hurt. He calls the kids into his office to tell them not to goof around in there because it's important that his money-making apparatus is the way he wants it. Those books all stacked weirdly on the floor, though? He didn't do it. His kids say they didn't do it (and like so many kids in horror movies, are telling the truth but aren't believed). But somehow the books are all goofed up. And Alan says he can hear them at night screwing around in that room; I bet he'd be hearing that even if he were looking at his kids upstairs while it was happening. He also mentions that if his kids are screwing around with the house plants, they're going to stop that too, immediately.
Back in the present, there's house plants all over the place as coal-mine canaries; if they all start dying that's another thing Kaylie can get on tape. The dog named Dog in a pet cage is there as another warning system. That leads the kids to remember their dog, Mason, lying around and whimpering in the front yard--apparently a victim of the mirror's bad vibes. And Alan bought a gun to feel safer, though his wife doesn't want that thing in the house. They have two kids, and if either one finds that weapon the results could be catastrophic, tragic and permanent. After all, you don't have to want to kill someone to shoot them dead. It can be an accident or someone could mistake a kid sneaking home after being out after curfew for a burglar. There's something interesting about all the supernatural threats being eclipsed by the perfectly rational one of a pistol in the house. After the "gun gets locked up and the bullets are kept elsewhere" solution to the dispute, Marie thinks she hears her husband insult her, but it's just the mirror starting to work its influence on her as well (and she sees herself older and uglier in the reflection when she looks at it).
Mason continues to go nuts, trying to get into the office and biting Marie's hand when she approaches. Alan's got himself locked in there and Marie hears that evil whispering when she listens at the door, but it's obvious that the room when she goes inside. There's a lot of pressure on both parents right now and it's giving the mirror whatever fingerholds it needs in their psyches to start doing damage. The dog's still freaking out, too, which drives Marie to frustration. She finally lets the dog into the office while Alan's out at a golf game / networking session with a client. The door locks from the inside and Alan's the only one who can get back in. And in the manner of pets in horror movies, Mason's on the floor whimpering. Alan agrees that it's time to get their dog to a vet.
Back in the present day, Kaylie presents a list of mirror victims whose pet dogs disappeared while Tim just thinks she's selectively remembering things and tells her about a virus that causes aggression and loss of control over bodily functions in dogs--it also kills plants, which explains one other allegedly supernatural manifestation near the mirror at the same time. When talking about what happened to Mason, it turns out that Tim remembers his father taking the dog to the vet and Mason being put to sleep when it turned out that the poor thing was too sick to save. Kaylie remembers the dog just vanishing when it was in a locked room with the Lasser Glass, which is another impossible event that (may have) happened anyway.
So the parallel tracks of the movie's narratives are now set in motion. In the past, the mirror starts working on Tim and Kaylie's parents--their mom keeps hearing Alan talking to someone in his office when there's nobody there. Sure, the mirror might be making him see someone that he engages in a conversation, but how would Marie hear his hallucination talking? Both of the kids hear their parents arguing about how Marie sounds when she says there's poison in the houses' water and that people have been sneaking into the house--and, intriguingly, in both cases the male character is the voice of "reason" who is also wrong, while the female one understands more of what is going on but sounds inherently unconvincing.
Back in the present, Tim says that he knows he heard the parents arguing and things breaking down, but he didn't actually see any strange women in the locked home office. Tim's memories are that his father had an affair, his mother snapped when she realized that, and things got lethally bad at home. Kaylie makes a good point, though--in the aftermath of the murders, she had the chance to go through all of her parents' financial records and never found so much as a credit card payment for flowers. Either Alan had a great many talents for hiding what he was up to, or he wasn't actually cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Dog keeps squealing in his cage and during an escalating argument and Tim lets him out--I know I was expecting someone to pull the dropcloth off his cage and reveal that Dog had vanished, but it's too early in the film for that to happen. Also, somewhere in the last few moments night has fallen completely, which seems weird (and the editing in the film so far has been good enough that this seems like an intentional breakdown rather than a mistake).
Tim keeps trying to convince his sister that she's got mental issues (which seems more likely than a cursed mirror, to be honest), and they're at a much lower emotional pitch than they were just moments ago. Also, none of the plants have died yet. At least at this point, it seems like she's starting to listen to "reason", but given that the movie is about an artifact that makes people hallucinate I'm not sure what to trust. And when Tim and Kaylie go back into the room, the plants are dead and the cameras have all been moved so they're lens-to-lens. Both of the human beings anywhere near the room were somewhere else when it happened, so Tim gets to put on his dawning-comprehension-and-horror face while Kaylie looks over the tapes to see what happened.
The video record shows both siblings moving the cameras while having the argument about Alan's affair, with the dialogue matching word for word but their actions being completely different. Tim wants to call his shrink, but Kaylie says it's time to get away from the mirror after a bit. The living plants in the kitchen mean that the mirror isn't able to affect them, at least for now, and Tim goes outside to make his phone call (but it doesn't go through, which could be for a mundane crappy cell phone plan reason or could be due to the Lasser Glass screwing with him). Then he gets snapped out of his panic haze by Kaylie and it turns out he never went outside to make that call. And at this point it's pretty much inevitable that someone's going to get in the way of that boat anchor when it comes crashing down--probably Kaylie, because she's the one who thinks she can win.
In the past, things are breaking down--Marie is drinking heavily, Alan isn't living at home (which means he can't work, which is one more aspect of the pressure working on everyone) and Marie wants her daughter to tell her about the mysterious woman in the office that she glimpsed once from outside while goofing around with a laser tag set. Tim says he saw this woman, but was too frightened to approach her when she went back into the office--although it doesn't make any sense, his belief is that she somehow lives in there. This latest information brings their mother to literal tears. Poking around in the office, she sees the name "Marisol"--one of the mirror's previous victims--written on some paperwork over and over, in a manner that suggests The Shining more than someone writing their girlfriend's name on their Trapper Keeper over and over. When Marie throws a paperweight at the mirror, she apparently irritates it into wanting to take a shot at her as well, leading to the "creepy reflection smiles at you while showing you what you hate about yourself via Cronenberg-style view of your Caesarian scar" shot. The kids are utterly unprepared to help their mother at this point even before she tries to strangle Tim in a fit of mirror-induced psychosis. Alan comes home at absolutely the worst time, or perhaps the best, because Marie turns on him rather than her kids but it becomes obvious that she's a danger to herself and others at this point.
When Alan tries to call 911, the phone just makes ghost noises at him rather than letting him get through to someone who might be able to help. And that's it--now the film has revealed that there won't be a way to get external help and Alan winds up chaining his wife to the bed rather than face her injuring or killing anyone else in the family (which could almost be viewed as the "right" thing to do, but he's going about it in the worst possible way). He tells the kids not to bother their mom, who needs plenty of bed rest right now so she can get better--and I'm pretty sure using enforced bed rest as a source of horror means Kevin Flanagan read "The Yellow Wallpaper" at some point.
The past and present start blurring into each other even more, with both plotlines advancing towards their inevitable resolutions. And it can't be a good sign that Alan says his kids can now stay in the office as much as they want as long as they're not bothering their mom while she recuperates. Then, in the present, there's a great "oh shit" moment where Kaylie puts a burnt-out light bulb next to the apple she was eating and even when she picks the fruit back up the audience wonders if she's really eating broken glass while the mirror makes her think it's something else. That gets confirmed in the nastiest possible way, before the rug gets pulled out from underneath her and the audience again seconds later. Normally I'd be against this kind of narrative trickery but it gets pulled off amazingly well here, and it's already been confirmed that the mirror can mess with people's perceptions.
Back in the past things are getting worse, with Alan hazing out when his daughter says they need food and they need to help their mother (he reponds with an identical "It's on my list," to both statements). There's a long tracking shot of Kaylie walking down the hallway to her mother's bedroom that amplifies the suspense as she gets ready to confront something that a twelve-year-old girl shouldn't ever have to deal with. And we get a jump scare based on what's really going on with her mom upstairs; when she tries in vain to get her father to realize that Marie needs help, not a choke chain bolted to the wall, the response is framed as an aggravated dad lecturing his kid about obedience rather than Alan's concern for his wife. Things escalate slightly more when Alan grounds his kids, forbidding them to leave the house. And when Kaylie tries to call a doctor, the guy thinks it's some boneheaded prank and wants to speak to her father before taking any action. Attempts to get a neighbor to come over and help don't go any better (though seeing Bob, the guy who lives next door, was surprising to me, given how much of the running time was spent with the same six actors). There's a fantastic use of blocking and camerawork in this sequence, where Alan conceals just how badly things are going in his head and salvation for the kids is literally inches away but doesn't pan out.
Back in the present, Kaylie spaces out, dozing on her feet and standing in front of the mirror as the booby-trap timer ticks down. She narrowly avoids becoming the victim of her own cleverness, and is starting to show the heightened aggression that is the hallmark of mirror-induced psychosis. She's got fluorescent camping lanterns stashed everywhere for when the power goes out, but that just makes everything dimly lit and creepy. Everything escalates in the past and present at the same time, thanks to the wonders of editing. And when Kaylie thinks she's killed her fiancee with a broken pottery shard, she has to ask Tim if he sees the body or not. Then the man calls her for the hourly update but the body still remains in the house; Kaylie realizes too late that she's no match for the mirror's powers and she and Tim make a break for it. If they wait outside for half an hour, the mirror will be shattered by the automatic trap. Once Tim mentions this the lights come back on, with the mirror trying to trick them into either going outside or going back in (neither one knows what the right course of action is).
In the past, Alan listens to the mirror for a while and then starts loading a gun. In the present, Tim and Kaylie see the mirror woman and flee upstairs--though I'm not sure when they came back inside to do that. Back in 2002, Marie winds up mutilating herself with shards of a broken plate before her husband comes in with the revolver to unchain her so that things can get really awful. Things keep skipping back and forth in time with Kaylie and Tim hiding in the bathroom in both years, seeing horrible things outside that are either the mirror messing with them--or, worse, people who are actually there. Both kids wind up going from bad to worse to horrible to awful in the past trying to flee their parents. Mirror-eyed apparations lurk around everywhere (including 2013 Tim seeing his dad walking around with a gun, which he saw eleven years ago when everything fell apart). And I'm legitimately not sure if Kaylie killed her fiancee at his point or not.
Things fall apart in the 2002 sequences, with Kaylie nearly getting strangled by her mother, only to be saved in the worst possible way by her psychotic, gun-toting father. Who still has three bullets left after killing his wife, and that's enough to topple the family tree completely. Yes, we know that the kids are going to get away because half the narrative involves them coming back to the murder house, but it's still suspenseful. And there's another impossible moment that happens anyway when the two kids take golf clubs to the mirror and utterly fail to damage it. Alan winds up holding the gun inches from his daughter's head and settles for strangling her instead after Tim smacks him with the golf club instead. His personality resurfaces just long enough to accept that he needs to die and he pulls the trigger on the gun Tim was holding on him (which explains that dream from the start of the film). There's also a really cool shot of the mirror's previous victims crowding around the two kids cowering on the floor.
Then the alarm goes off and wakes Tim up as he sits on the floor under the mirror, all the lights in the room working perfectly. He decides to cheat the timer and break the accursed thing at last and spins the dial forward until the boat anchor falls, and...well, the mirror can make people see things that aren't there. But it can also make them miss things that are. And to the rest of the world, he's just a kid whose mind snapped when he was ten who never should have been let out of the asylum.
The mirror remains completely undamaged, and may well show up in a vastly inferior direct-to-cable sequel. I hope that whoever extends the franchise has as much talent for writing and editing as Mike Flanagan did, and that they have a cast as capable as the one from this film. I'm quite looking forward to anything else that the filmmakers do, but hopefully it'll be in the field of supernatural horror.
And to think it was from the same entertainment conglomerate that gave us Doink the clown. Maybe the mirror made me hallucinate a really well-made horror movie instead and I'm cursing anyone who trusts my opinion to go watch something on the wrong end of the bell curve.
This is another review for HubrisWeen, the roundtable where five B movie review sites go through 26 movies in alphabetical order in October. Click on the banner up there to see what the other four guys wanted to talk about.