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ON THE WALL

All mirrors are magic mirrors, of course.  Recognizing one's own image must have had a lot to do with the development of human consciousness, and the development of magic, which happened at about the same time. Narcissus was not the first person to become obsessed with his own reflection.
    Magic mirrors handily made the transition from fairy tales to the movies, which are just different ways of telling ourselves stories. In Jean Cocteau's 1950 “Orphée” he retells one of the oldest stories in a modern setting where mirrors are the portals between life and death, only you need special gloves to get through. 
    Now the young French director Alexandre Aja (his last name is a nom de film, the initials of his full name, Alexandre Jouan Arcady) has expanded on the theme of mirrors as portals in “Mirrors,” a  dark (frequently literally dark) horror tale which opened this week, and is the summer's best bet for those of us who want a real frisson.
    “Mirrors” is Aja's remake of a 2003 Korean horror film called “Into the Mirror,” just as his first American feature “The Hills Have Eyes” was a remake of Wes Craven's 1977 film of that name. A lot of the recent remakes have been shameless bids to make a quick buck, but Aja's “Mirrors” has a really cool set design, a few intriguing ideas, and some shivery moments that go bump in the night.
    Kiefer Sutherland, who isn't half the actor his old man is, is nonetheless pretty convincing as a cop, Ben Carson, who's been suspended from the force after an accident that left his partner dead, and who takes a job as a security guard while he pulls his life back together.
    He's the only night watchman at a huge, derelict department store in midtown Manhattan that was burned out five years before. (That a huge chunk of incredibly valuable New York real estate has had nothing happening on it for five years is one way we know it's a movie.) It must have been a strange fire, because it flashed through all five floors of the building, leaving the structure intact , blackening all the furniture and displays while leaving the mannequins in disturbing postures, and killing bunches of people. Ben has to patrol the spooky environs with nothing but a flashlight, which sets us up for the predictable surprises when he starts seeing things in the huge and highly-polished mirrors that line the Art Deco walls of what's described as once the most luxurious store in town.     Whew.
    We've actually been alerted to the horrors that live in the mirrors, because the movie opens with the former night watchman running from something in a deserted subway station, and cutting his own throat with a shard of mirror that obligingly breaks off in his hand, so we know that the Nameless Evil isn't confined to the store, but can follow its chosen victims around.
    This becomes important when we learn that Ben is bunking with his kid sister while trying to get in to see his estranged family: a lovely wife (Paula Patton) and two adorable kids (Erica Gluck and Cameron Boyce).
    But during Ben's first night on the job, the creepy bits build very satisfactorily, beginning with a single indelible palm print (could it be on the other side?) on one of the gleaming mirrors.
    As the manifestations escalate you want to scream the age-old warnings at the screen: Don't pull that curtain aside! Don't go down the long dark staircase to the flooded basement!  But Kiefer Sutherland is made of sterner stuff than you or I.
    Even as Ben's nerves start to unravel, his old police procedural habits take over, and he begins to research the history behind the building and the fire. His search is given a prod when his sister dies a horrid, bloody death in her bathtub and he realizes that whatever “it” is, it's after him and his loved ones.
    In fact, the sister's bath scene goes so far beyond Janet Leigh's shower scene in “Psycho” that I would strongly urge parents not to bring children.“The Hills Have Eyes” reinforced  Aja's reputation as a director who delights in the depiction of grotesque brutality. In contrast, “Mirrors” shows some restraint (here and there) and attempts to tell a coherent story; but there are moments, like this one, that make one's gorge rise, if one has a gorge.
    When Ben comes across the records of an old psychiatric hospital that used to be on the site of the store, we realize that the director has carried us along very artfully so far, because the shift in emphasis is a relief: clues are concrete, and they present us with a plan of action. Clues are a welcome hint that someone, viz. our hero, is about to make logical sense of the random malice and return us to our daylight world. Conversely, the logical deductions can prove a false comfort, and lead us deeper into the realm of madness and horror. Both of these conclusions are classic dénouements of the genre, and are, I think, equally acceptable.
    Aja and his co-writer Grégory Levasseur manage to blend these two alternatives, in a way, but how they get to the blow-off is the movie's downfall. Ben's search for clues leads to those brief, welcome moments of relief before, alas, spiraling into a ridiculous backstory that leads us to the back woods of Pennsylvania, an Augustinian monastery, and a solution, though without the pea soup, that's straight out of “The Exorcist.”
    There's a twist at the end that I won't give away, but it will be satisfying to many of us older movie-goers in the way that “Twilight Zone” endings gave us the shivers when we were in junior high.
    And it's no spoiler to tell you that the family survives. The two kids are in grave danger, just as Flora and Miles are in Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw.” But Ben's son survives the onslaught in today's Hollywood, as Miles does not in 1961's “The Innocents,” based on the James novella, and one of the scariest things you'll ever see if you get the chance.