Mirrors and Mindbenders!
By Kristin Battestella
What do we see when we watch horror? Take a bizarre look into the deceptive reflections, dopplegangers, demetia, and through the looking glass scares with this quartet of old time crazies and more recent optical thrillers.
Alone in the Dark – A cult cast featuring veteran Jack Palance (City Slickers), minister Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), unusual doctor Donald Pleasence (Halloween), and his new protege Dwight Schultz (The A-Team) adds class to this 1982 slasher full of topsy turvy patients. The solemn mental hospital locale is pretty but cluttered with knickknacks, loons, and converted with buzzed entries, faulty electrical systems, and bizarre treatments. Medical textbooks don't apply in this ward! This perilous crowding contrasts the new, open, family farmhouse potential, which soon finds itself in a fearful switcharoo. Who's a patient or employee? Who's harmless or dangerous? Some crazy rambling is confusing to start, but shadowed dorm rooms with spooky, whispered plotting create a paranoid atmosphere – especially when such heavyweight gents are doing the evil planning. A touch of hot pink sideways pony tails and punk bands remind us of the early eighties hip, but any datedness is quickly forgotten as violence, escapes, and riots escalate during the titular blackout. The crazy inside spreads outside quickly with one flick of the switch, and flashlights, lanterns, candles, and fire sell the precarious mood. Daylight doesn't alleviate the killer tendencies or child peril, and except for a fittingly sardonic little girl, the frightful is played seriously. While some jump scares and teen sex may seem commonplace now, these early genre staples are well paced and plenty of surprises, siege horror, creative weapons, and simmering kills make up any difference. Not only is there no cheap nudity or excess like today, but progressive talk about the pitfalls of wind power and nuclear energy add to the social commentaries at work. The fragile balance of polite society cracks pretty quickly once the kill or be killed terror flourishes here.
Mirror Mirror – Ironic country music and frightful orchestration accent the bloody period introduction of this 1990 teen creeper. Yes, that’s a generic title complete with a barebones DVD and no subtitles, but the spooky mix of antiques, hats, and shoulder pads make for a gothic mid century meets eighties style. Like dentistry, the innately eerie mirror aspects pack on the macabre along with blue lighting, distorted demonic voices, gruesome dreams, and bugs laying on the atmosphere. The 30-year-old looking teens in too much denim are mostly tolerable thanks to relatable new kid in town outsider feelings and feminine spins. Rainbow Harvest (Old Enough) is perhaps too wannabe Lydia from Beetlejuice and there is no sign of authority or investigation whatsoever, but the dark tone, a bemusing Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters) handling the research, and the neurotic Karen Black (Burnt Offerings) make up any difference. This is a solid R, but the blood, nudity, water frights, and dog harm are done smartly without being excessive. The familiar Carrie, Teen Witch, and The Craft designs will be obvious to horror viewers, but it’s a fun 90 minutes of out of touch parents and teachers, high school cliques, and escalating creepy crimes. The titular evil from the other side takes hold for a wild finish – but never, ever put your hand down that garbage disposal, ever!
Oculus – Family scares, guns, and glowing eyes creepy get right to it as siblings are trying to both remember and forget their past tragedy in this 2013 mindbender full of askew dreams, unreliable memories, statues covered in sheets, and one cursed antique mirror. I would have preferred leads older than their early twenties – clearly appealing to the young it crowd – and despite an understandable awkward or instability, Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt) are too wooden at times. Fortunately, the more mature Katee Sackoff (Battlestar Galatica) and Rory Cochrane (Empire Records) and child support Annalise Basso (The Red Road) and Garrett Ryan (Dark House) do better. The non-linear past and present retelling, however, is confusing – the parallel plots aren't quite clear until the paranormal investigation brings everything together in one location with elaborate equipment, carefully orchestrated timers, and fail safes for a night of ghostly activity. The video documentation makes for smart exposition at the expense of a larger cast or showing the accursed historical events – replacing the tried and true research montage for today's audiences without resorting to the found footage gimmick. There are no in your face camera effects or zooms with booming music when the frightful appears, and the viewer is allowed to speculate on the seen or unseen reflections, there or maybe not whispering, and distorted blink and you miss them doppelgangers. Is there a psychological explanation or is this all supernatural? Although the recollections or flashbacks of the crisscrossing events should have been more polished – are we watching two, four, or six people as this battle replays itself? – the paranoia builds in both time frames with canine trauma and alternating suspense. Yes, there are Insidious similarities, the product placement and brand name dropping feels unnecessary, and the uneven plot merge cheats in its reflection on the warped or evil influences at work. The finale falters slightly as well, however, there is a quality discussion about the titular manipulation, and the time here remains entertaining as household horrors intensify. WWE Studios, who knew?
The Psychic – There are numerous titles – but no subtitles – for this 1977 Lucio Fulci (Zombi 2) giallo tale along with a typical driving montage, dated seventies euro pop, and the expected dubbing, accents, and vocal iffy. Fortunately, the graphic opening suicide, great looking cars, classic planes, country estates, hats, furs, and eponymous witnessing more than make up for any audio technicalities. Then upscale technology, radio, tape recorders, and answering machines add to the sophisticated style and Italian flair while a simmering, eerie score sets off the paranormal visions. Swift editing intercutting between the fearful Jennifer O'Neill (Summer of '42) and the fragmented imagery is layered with red, blood, violence, and screams, but her husband, doctors, and police remain skeptical even as evidence is found. Are these episodes stress, dreams, coincidence, obsession, or intuition? Our young wife plans on redoing an abandoned villa, but finds more secrets about the victims and the living amid the cobwebs, covered furniture, and mirrors. Has something occurred here or will it? Who is suspect? The Italian names may be tough for some, and the slightly obvious, tame for today story plays loose with terms like physic, clairvoyant, premonition, and what these powers actually are. There are convenient, self fulfilling prophecy plot points, too – secretaries who happen to know the facts, others do the legwork research, taxi driver connections are easily found. However, it's interesting to see that images and memories can be distorted, foretold objects misconstrued, or that the facts don't always come together as we thought. Although the heavy opening implies the 90 minutes plus will be full on horror house gore, the time is largely spent on the mystery investigation before punching it up with some shock moments in a superb action finale. Not everything here is as the audience may expect, and plenty of clues and surprises make for a nice little paranormal pursuit.