Saturday, October 29, 2011

30 Days Of Night: Goodbye To Romance

It all started with ads for the conclusion for the last movie in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. I know I'm not the audience for these movies, and I understand the mechanism behind their appeal, but there's still something about the sight of a chalk-skinned, feral-eyed vampire marrying his doe-eyed teen love and this being a cause for celebration instead of the hideous parody it should be that just makes something rear up in me and say "hang on right one fucking minute."  These are not vampires. These are what happens when you take the sexless appeal of the average boy band and graft it onto the baroque construction of the vampire as romantic figure popularized by intermittently Catholic bondage author Anne Rice.

"But Cliff", my nonexistent strawman says, "what about the original story Dracula by Bram Stoker? Wasn't he a romantic figure?"

I would argue not.

"But Cliff, didn't you see Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation? Gary Oldman was all kinds of tragic and romantic and yearning and shit in that movie. And he cut quite the dashing figure in his dove-gray suit and top hat."

I did indeed see it. In fact, it's one of the few vampire movies I like. But I'd suggest that Dracula was actually the ancient, draconian thing who meets with Jonathan Harker. Dracula had many forms, and the liberation from Victorian repression he represented was a raw, atavistic force, not some romantic ideal. It is my opinion that Dracula's appearance was more a function of cultural mores about gender and courtship than something about the character. That some people construct the idea of the vampire around the elegant, tragic figure Mina sees says more about them than it does about the vampire.

Me, I see the abomination, the thing that lives forever by drinking the blood of the living. And that's why Stephanie Meyer's ridiculous stories got me thinking about 30 Days Of Night.

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost town in Alaska. It's so far north that it experiences a month-long sunset. It's a cold, flat place, a small American town in the middle of a white desert of snow and ice. The movie opens with residents of the town making their preparations for the long night. Some residents are headed to Anchorage, some are stocking up on supplies, some are shutting their businesses down. Departing residents say goodbye to spouses, vehicles get put into storage. There's no sense of sadness - this is just how life is and always has been out here.

Miles away, a lone figure departs a massive black ship, and begins a long walk across the ice floes toward Barrow.

Eben, the town's sheriff, is busy with all of the last-minute work of getting his community safe and ready, along with small-town sheriff business. As the sun is setting, he's faced with theft, vandalism, and a hostile, unruly drifter making trouble at the local diner. On the surface, it doesn't seem like anything too unusual, except that what's been stolen are all of the town's satellite phones (found burnt in a pile outside of town), what's been vandalized is a local pilot's helicopter, somebody's killed all of the sled dogs in the town kennel, and the drifter at the diner keeps asking for raw meat.

The vampires in this movie aren't romantic at all. They are bestial things, with the same dead-eyed implacability as a shark. They do not seduce their victims, they bring them to ground. They do not drink - they rip, tear, and bury their faces greedily into their victims. They communicate in growls, clicks, and shrieks, along with some harsh, guttural language left forgotten to the civilized world. Their hands are claws, their eyes are black, and they have the teeth of piranhas in mouths raw with blood. They have come to this place, in the middle of nowhere, to feed for thirty uninterrupted days.

This movie isn't so much a vampire movie as we are used to thinking of them - a few true, well-equipped believers at war with a society of blood-drinking sophisticates. This is a siege movie, in which Barrow's dwindling survivors scurry from lit place to lit place, gathering supplies and weapons, struggling as much among themselves as with the predators outside. Old grudges raise their heads, misgivings tear the group away from each other, and all the while, the vampires circle outside in the snow and the dark, waiting for the one mistake that will deliver their prey to them.

Besides the refreshingly merciless take on the genre, 30 Days Of Night is shot beautifully, in what is at times an almost painterly style. The movie is dominated by blues, whites, and grays, interrupted by the warmth of light - sunset, lamps, fire - and blood, from black to vivid red.  The trails left behind as the vampires drag their victims away look almost like brush strokes, and in some scenes, the light from a streetlamp falls in such a way that the entire enterprise almost feels like a stage set - as if Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Diner were repainted in the most desolate manner possible. The ship heralding the arrival of the vampires is a black, hulking ruin, blotting out a chunk of the horizon like darkness itself cutting through the ice. A woman pleads for her life with the vampire about to kill her, begging to God that she be spared. The vampire repeats "God?" and looks up to the heavens as if anticipating a response. When the silence ends, it is with the vampire telling the woman "No. No God." Our dreams are not being answered, there are no fairytales here, no brooding immortals who sparkle in sunlight, wedding the true love of their centuries. That's for little girls who have not yet been told the truth of the world. All there is here is blood and cold and indifferent silence speared by the screams of carnivorous things.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fun With Google 3

mia farrow childlike

serbian film decapitation rape scene

There is no way for this to end well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 2: Can't You See The Blood?

Well, if you're going to leverage the success of your previous shows to do something spectacularly messed-up on a network that seems willing to take some chances, you'd best go big. American Horror Story came out of the gate like the tweaking party guest nobody could remember inviting - the one who won't stop sweating and really, really wants to talk to you about the gold standard and some really compelling business opportunities involving the collapse of Western civilization. A whole lot of crazy, all up in your face at once. I had some concerns after the first episode that a constant barrage of weird would be too distracting to be scary, and the second episode eases up a little on the sheer WTF-ery in every scene. It's still a little frenetic in spots, but with the cast of characters in place, the pace slows down a little. It's less a bunch of stuff being flung at you, and more something unfolding. Some piece of origami, maybe. Folded from a hideous picture, each glimpse, each angle, letting us in a little more to the horrible totality.

Just as the pilot opened in 1978, with the house sitting in ruins, this episode opens up in 1968, with the house serving as a boarding house for nursing students. In 1978, two boys intent on vandalism were mauled by, well, something in the basement. In 1968, the house is in fine shape, and some of the students are going out for the evening. Two others are staying in to study, and because they don't want to get themselves in trouble, late-60s-single-women-style. And when a man comes to the door, hurt and bleeding from a cut on his forehead, the nursing students let him in.

He isn't really hurt, and they don't survive the night.

It's looking more and more like this house is built as much out of atrocity as it is brick.

Meanwhile, the Harmon family, already busy disintegrating when they moved in, are hard at work fucking themselves up even more. They moved across the country to get away from everything that happened to them in Boston - Ben's affair, Vivien's stillbirth. Now Ben's affair is reaching out from one coast to the next. She's pregnant, and wants Ben to come to Boston to help "take care of it." Naturally, Ben lies his lying face off about it to his wife and daughter. Not that it matters as much at this point - he and his wife are forging a tenuous reconnection over her new pregnancy (yeah, that's healthy), and his daughter is pretty much openly contemptuous of him because of the affair. She doesn't fit in at school and she's cutting herself. On the other hand, she's made a connection with Tate, one of Ben's clients. Tate is probably not the healthiest friend to have, but he's pretty familiar with the house - including the knowledge that there is something in the basement. So Ben's off to Boston, and Vivien and Violet are on their own in the house.

And a woman comes to the door, hurt and bleeding from a cut on her forehead.

One of this show's strengths so far is how it keeps us off-balance. In the pilot, that was partially because we had so much information thrown at us. In this episode, it's more how new reveals upset what we think we know. The people who die here don't seem to leave, so it remains to be seen who else is a victim of the house. For the most part, we only have the Harmon's perspective, and that's not very trustworthy. It turns out Constance has a life apart from the house, and it's just as messed up as you might imagine. But Moira? Tate? Are we seeing them as they are? Tate is alternately full of rage and lonely, confused. He knows there's something important about the basement, but pleads ignorance as to what. Moira is a seductress to Ben and an older woman to everyone else. People don't really walk into this house. They're just sort of not there, and then they are. The jittery, disconnected editing of the pilot continues, as if what we're witnessing is fragmented, and the gaps suggest there are things we aren't actually seeing, but should. For the nursing students in 1968, the blood on the man's forehead was a lie, and the truth was much worse. This episode reinforces the idea that what we see may very well be the lie, and the truth might actually be worse. What can't we see?

Episode One

Monday, October 17, 2011

New Least Favorite Horror Film-Related Phrase Ever

The description of upcoming demonic possession film The Devil Inside as a "micro-budget franchise starter."

Goddamnit, this is Not Helping.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Screw The Book, I'll Wait For The Movie

I've just finished reading Pontypool Changes Everything, the book on which the movie Pontypool was (ostensibly) based. To say that the makers of the movie took liberties with the book would be like saying that Picasso's cubist work took liberties with proportion and perspective. The protagonist of the movie appears in one or two chapters in the last third of the book, never sits down in a radio station, and ends up pretty thoroughly dead about as quickly and uneventfully as he was introduced. The rest of the book is a nightmarishly squirrelly trip through the minds of assorted doomed people on the peripheries of a new plague that pretty much razes the human population of a chunk of Ontario. Yes, people eat each other and yes, it seems to be spread through language, but otherwise it has as much in common with the movie as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead did with Hamlet.

I mean, we're talking pissed-off babies cutting their own umbilical cords and going to live with other babies at the bottom of icy lakes, brothers and sisters catching and eating zombies after being abandoned by their parents, sex addicts personifying their Higher Power as a separate being who talks to them, and damn near the first third of the book is the story of the first guy to spot one of the plague victims, and the plague itself doesn't make an appearance until a few chapters in.

It's sort of a challenging read, is what I'm saying.

American Horror Story, Episode 1: A Body Is Like A House

Okay, now this is more like it.  If you're going to do a haunted-house story, a story about a shunned, damned place full of the unhappy echoes of those who have died within its walls, then don't pull punches, or try to make it some genre window dressing for some kind of soap opera (I am so totally looking at you, Bedlam). Just make it balls-out scary.

The first episode of American Horror Story is dense, layered, complicated, and bizarre to a degree I haven't seen since Twin Peaks. Like that show, it's also sharply scary. Unlike Twin Peaks, which took its time winding things up until you were in the middle of a nightmare without realizing how you got there (at least until Season 2, when it all kind of went in the toilet), American Horror Story pretty much grabs you by the back of the head and dunks your head in the sink.

The show opens in 1978, on a shot of an old, dilapidated brick mansion. The lawn is overgrown and the house is beginning to strangle under climbing vines. A young girl in a bright yellow dress stands outside the house, looking into one of the upper-story windows. Two boys come up the walk - twins carrying baseball bats. They've got vandalism on their minds, but before they can walk in and start smashing things, the girl speaks.

"You're going to die in there."

Of course this doesn't stop the boys from going in and smashing things, and of course, they die in there. Forward to the present day.

The Harmon family have moved from Boston to Los Angeles to try and pull themselves together. Ben's a psychiatrist in private practice, Vivien was a cellist, and Violet is their daughter. From the word go, this family is just barely holding together. Everyone is angry and lashing out at everybody else. We discover that Vivien had a horrible, traumatic miscarriage, then Ben had an affair as the loss pushed them apart, and Violet's pretty much disgusted with both of them. This move is intended to give them a chance to start over, as they move into the same house we saw in the beginning, now cleaned and remodeled. It dates back to the 1920s, its first owner a "doctor to the stars," according to the realtor. The most recent owners were a gay couple who put a great deal of work into the house.

Put a great deal of work into the house, and...ended up dead. In a murder/suicide pact.

So this is a house with a long, awful history. To start, we're only getting bits and pieces of it, as people are introduced (a neighbor, a maid, a client of Ben's, the girl from the beginning now grown, a disfigured man) and questions about them raised just as quickly. It's a good thing that FX has committed to 13 episodes of this show, because just from the pilot I'm getting the sense that it's going to take at least that long to untangle the knots we've had dropped into our lap. To say that not everyone is who they seem to be, well, of course not. But we get just enough to upend anything we might have concluded just minutes before. It's like three episodes' worth of dramatic reveals in one episode. I'll say it again: This is a dense show.

The density isn't just the amount of information we get, it's also in the recurrent themes and imagery. Sleepwalking, dreaming, and fire resonate throughout, analogies are made comparing bodies to houses (especially unsettling since the last resident of Vivien's body was dead before birth), and there's a hazy feeling that none of this is quite new, that perhaps, history is once again repeating itself - or maybe it's just the same story over and over again over the decades. You've always been the caretaker of the Overlook.

Even the production choices enhance the sense of unreality and dislocation - the camerawork is a continually shifting beast - odd angles, handheld jitteriness, and an odd, disconnected style of editing that makes it feels like frames have been dropped somewhere, as if continuity has begun to break down. Quick, almost-subliminal shots are cut into the middle of continuous scenes, adding to this sense that reality is slipping, for us as well as the characters. Sometimes this visual business becomes a little distracting, keeping us from really taking in the implications of a shot or a scene before we're on to the next one. It's only mildly distracting (though there was one particular scene that should have been absolutely terrifying and would have been if it hadn't happened and been over so quickly), mostly because you're so busy trying to decode things that the end effect is one of being swept up headlong into the turmoil contained by the walls of the house. That said, I'd like to see the show slow down and breathe a little more. When it does, the silences and steadily held shots can be just as chilling. More prosaically, the effects work is a little uneven - some works at creating a mood of nightmarish surrealism (or surrealist nightmare), others verge a little more on SyFy Original Movie territory. It's not a complete miss at its worst, but it's sitting on the verge.

Based on the pilot, this is going to live up to its title - it's the death of everyone who walks into the house, it's the death of the American family. It's a nightmare curdling in the middle of the City of Angels, and so far, it's shaping up to be an impressive piece of work.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bedlam, Episode One: By The Way, Did We Mention It Was Haunted?

Boy, is there a dearth of scary stuff on television. It doesn't even need to be gory or adult or anything like that. Just something spooky, you know, something to give you a few good frights. Much of what I've seen in the last few years has been courtesy of BBC America - The League of Gentlemen, Afterlife, the occasional episode of Doctor Who (holy shit, "Blink") and Torchwood (holy shit, "Countrycide", "Children of Earth"). So seeing that they were going to premiere Bedlam - what appeared to be a series about a straight-up haunted building - I was all "woo-hoo!" and setting the DVR. The premise seemed a little goofy - former asylum turned into luxury apartments and haunted by the ghosts of patients who died there - but the ghosts looked cool and the setup allowed for both episodic and continuous storylines. So hey, let's check this out, episode by episode.

So the first episode opens with Kate Bettany trying to sell potential occupants on units in her father's newest development, Bedlam Heights Luxury Flats. Apparently, the building has been in Kate's family for generations, since the days when the Bettany family ran the asylum. What they were thinking, calling the development BEDLAM Heights, positioning it alongside the most notorious example of early insane asylums, well, it's TV so fuck it. But seriously, you wouldn't put up condos on the site of a former German P.O.W. camp and call it "Stalag Gardens" or anything. So no wonder Kate's having trouble filling the units.

Kate lives in the building along with her friends Ryan McAllister and Molly Lucas. Molly kind of has a thing for Ryan, but it's tough to tell whether or not Ryan's gay - he might be, but he's not saying. Then there's Kate's friend Zoe, who doesn't live there and isn't really liked by anyone else. They're all trying to get Kate to go out with them for her birthday. Warren (Kate's dad) comes by as she's finishing up for the day and gives her a lovely antique ring for her birthday. "Where'd you get this, Dad?" "I found it in one of the walls." Gee, thanks, Dad. Nothing says "I love my daughter" more than the personal effects of a long-dead mental patient.

Kate puts on the ring, and a hollow-eyed apparition in a patient's gown appears behind her, and water starts running down the walls. Uh-oh.

Rounding the cast of characters is Jed, Kate's cousin. He's muscular, full-lipped, brooding, tormented, and can not only see ghosts, but can also see how they died. He and Kate are just this side of estranged, mostly because Jed's been in and out of mental hospitals himself as a result of his "gift." He's the black sheep of the family. He's back because he keeps getting text messages on his phone that say "help Kate" or "save Kate" or "Kate in danger" or variations thereof. Jed sees the apparition and knows why Kate needs saving, even while Kate rolls her eyes at him and misses death by that much.

I'm not convinced by this first episode. Part of it seems to be the show's attempt to be both a Melrose Place-style relationship drama and a ghost story. The relationships are inchoate, muddled. More goes unsaid than said, and nobody seems like they really connect. Maybe this is by design, but it's tough to tell who these people actually are to each other, so there's not much reason for me to care about what happens to them. The ghost part is equally problematic, because even though the ghosts themselves are effective, their every appearance is telegraphed by a HUGE! MUSICAL! STING! as if we're not going to know there's a ghost on screen otherwise. It's distracting and robs the show of any suspense or tension it could have. This is too bad, because there's a lot of potential here, and Jed's introduction demonstrates that they can handle ghosts subtly too, they just don't. I'd like to think that some of this is down to this being the first episode, but ghosts don't need all of the fanfare. They can just be there in the background and be way more chilling than if someone kept yelling in our ear "THERE ARE GHOSTS! THIS PLACE IS HAUNTED!" Dude, I know, it's why I'm watching in the first place.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Role of Intent Part One: What He Was Really Saying Was…

So I've been short on time to work on the blog lately. Unfortunate (and a little frustrating, and so I'm thinking about ways to expand what I write so that it's not weeks between entries), but it happens. One of the things I hadn't had time to do was address a recent comment on my reconsideration of Srpski Film. Someone by the name Anonymous was nice enough to write…

"Not to be too critical, but you guys are all pretty much way off the mark. You are all trying to see this movie through what you have heard on CNN and you should understand that the director and people in Serbia didn't watch CNN and their view of their country is way different than yours. The closest you got to what the movie is about is your statement '...that this is the sort of film Serbia produces'. It is a film within a film critiquing the Serbian film industry, its tight connection to the Serbian government and the modern propaganda that it serves. The painting on the wall is the last supper before the battle of kosovo [sic] (14th century). The scene is intended to show how cinema is used for propaganda purposes to stain Serbia's reputation and loosen its grip on Kosovo. The guys that made the film are tired of what they call 'Red Cross' movies and that is the meaning behind the speech Vukmir makes about the victim being the priciest sell."

…which was nice of them, I thought. Who knows how long I would have gone completely misunderstanding the film? It's a good thing Anonymous came along to set me straight.

However, since this blog is one guy, and not "guys", and this guy gets busy sometimes, it took me awhile to read the comment. And while I was in the process of formulating a response (which I wanted to do before I published the comment, so the exchange could go up at once), Anonymous was nice enough to clarify…

"So I see that you censor posts that are not agreeable to your (misinformed) viewpoint. Doesn't matter because the true interpretation of this movie is out more and more on the net and your little piece here looks laughable next to it."

Well, damn. It turns out that I was misinformed, and my "little piece" was laughable. I was wrong about a movie.  Which is funny, because to the best of my knowledge, I've never claimed to be any sort of authority, let alone  "right" about movies.

And so I've been thinking about authorial intent. Specifically, how thoroughly unimportant it is.

Trying to pin down what a movie is "about" is a tricky thing. Sure, there's the plot - in that sense, Srpski Film is about a former porn star who takes one last job to make enough money to support his family and ends up getting tangled up in something very bad. But at the end of the day, a plot is just a sequence of events. When was the last time a synopsis scared the hell out of you? With a few tweaks, I also just described part of one of the storylines in Boogie Nights and the general plot of Wonderland, neither one of which are generally considered horror movies. Shift the role of the porn star from the foreground to a background role as the protagonist's girlfriend and you've got Sexy Beast, which although an awesome movie, is by no means horror.

So there's got to be something else there that gives the movie some emotional freight, something to which we can respond both rationally (we understand what is happening) and then emotionally (it makes us feel a certain way, given a particular context). Much of the experience of a movie isn't the events themselves as much as how the events are expressed, and that's a slipperier thing than just a straight synopsis. There are specific choices in visual, aural, and verbal content that can make the most horrible thing feel mundane, and the most mundane thing feel absolutely horrible. The plot engages us rationally, imagery engages us emotionally. If you want to get people to feel something, you need to use imagery to speak past their capacity for rational comprehension and get in their head, speak to their gut, get reaction instead of response.

(Alternatively, you can use imagery that's really, really specific to you and nobody else, and then you're Matthew Barney or, to a lesser extent, David Lynch.)

So if you're trying to freak an audience the fuck out, you're going use the sort of imagery that's most likely to elicit that, and that varies from culture to culture. You're going to need imagery that speaks directly to the hopes and fears and values of an audience for whom these things are at least in part a product of their time and place. Culture's like the water in which a fish swims, (or like the Force) - it's all around us, in us and outside of us. We are products of our culture.

Think about some of the landmark films in U.S. horror - the giant insects and lizards of the post-WWII era, products of this newfangled "radiation" thing, the mindless body-snatching alien stand-ins for Communists during the Cold War, the crazed hippies of The Last House on the Left, a product of the Sixties and post-Vietnam rage. Would Them! have been so scary to countries for whom radiation wasn't an issue? It would have been scary, yes, because giant ants are fucking terrifying, but it wouldn't have that it-could-happen-here frisson that it had here. Would Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been as scary in the Soviet Union? Probably not. The Last House on the Left remake might have freaked some people out, but the original was off in uncharted territory, in part because it fed on anxieties about youth culture and its perceived threat to respectable suburban types. If you want to communicate something to an audience, speak to them in a language they'll understand.

Which brings me back to Srpski Film (yet again) and what films are "about."

So in my extended piece on this particular movie, I contended that it worked as a story about the victimization of people living under a totalitarian regime, the role of surveillance in their lives, how this victimization affects subsequent generations, and how these pressures and legacies can reduce people to beasts or break them outright. I thought I made a decent case for this perspective, but Anonymous disagreed. His/her contention was that the movie was really and truly about the frustration Serbian filmmakers experience in trying to make art in a country where the state still exerts strict control over film production and distribution. And that's definitely something I've read in interviews with director Srdjan Spasojevic. So I can believe that's where he was coming from. But saying that the movie has one true interpretation ignores all of the history from which its imagery was drawn. It privileges what's being said over how it's being said, when you can't really extricate one from the other. It's as much about totalitarianism as it is about trying to make art as it is about a former porn star getting back in the game one last time.

"But how can a movie be about anything apart from what the director makes it?" asks the complete and total strawman I've made up for this bit. Well, how we say something imparts as much meaning as what we say or why we say it. We communicate in the languages with which we're most familiar, and I think that's as true of culture and the imagery we derive from it as anything else. It's called A Serbian Film because it's in Serbian - not just the spoken dialogue, but the imagery as well. There's a legacy of totalitarianism, of people trying to get by under surveillance and omnipresent control that is evident in the imagery of the film, the metaphorical language of the film.

Even if Spasojevic made Srpski Film about the plight of the Serbian filmmaker (and I have no doubt that's what inspired him, but was that really the central thesis?), how he chose to tell that story adds an entirely separate layer of meaning to the film, and that's a good thing. Personally, I think that when directors set out to make a movie with a really specific message, they usually product something shitty and didactic. Srpski Film doesn't do that. It doesn't beat you over the head with "this is terrible and you should feel terrible and wonder how this could possibly happen in a just world," it just says "yeah, this is happening and you're watching it. What are you going to do?"

At the end of the day, what the viewer gets from the film probably matters most. Not what the director was trying to say, not what someone else thinks the director was trying to say. A good film is "about" many things, and I think it's a mistake to constrain our interpretations.

Next time: What happens when intent is inferred from content, and the upcoming sequel to The Human Centipede.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dark Mirror: Paranoia Begins At Home

One of my favorite scary movies of all time is Rosemary's Baby. It's both a sharp commentary on women's roles in the late 60s and a supremely atmospheric exercise in tension and paranoia. Mia Farrow's character is childlike and helpless, not because that's her nature, but because that's the only response she has based on how people treat her. No matter how much she tries to assert herself, she is patronized - as a woman, as a pregnant woman, as a pregnant woman who doesn't possess her husband's sophistication.  It is impossible for her to be taken seriously, even as shit gets weirder and weirder. Nobody else seems to notice, so is it all in her head? Can she even know her own mind any more? She lives in a gorgeous, historic apartment building in New York City, but it's a prison where everyone else seems to be her warden - for good reason, as it turns out. It's a druggy, oppressive parody of domesticity with something horrible at its center.

Now, Dark Mirror is not Rosemary's Baby by any stretch. But, given its constraints. it's the one of the few movies I've seen that makes home and domesticity as horrifying as strange, abandoned places are. It's also one of the few putative haunted house movies I've seen where the house is somehow more menacing in broad daylight than at night.

The first thing we see is a woman sleeping in bed with a child. She wakes, raises a bloody hand to her face. Oh dear. Smash cut to many days before.

The woman is Deborah, the child is her son Ian, and they, along with husband/father Jim, have moved from Seattle to (presumably) Los Angeles for Jim's work. They're looking at houses, and we come in as they're looking at the one into which they're going to move. It's a charming place - lots of original details, plenty of light, cute little neighborhood. There's something about the house that captures Deborah's attention - perhaps the quality of the light as it comes through the windows. She loves it and wants to make an offer right there. It's nicely handled - it's not a creepy automaton sort of moment like it could have been. It seems a little impulsive, but we get the sense that Deborah's dealing with a lot around the move.

As it transpires, she wasn't a huge fan of the idea, and she's not adjusting all that well to it. Jim's distant, spending a lot of time at work. She's stuck at home with Ian, who is kind of an annoying little shit. She has a career as a photographer, and is trying to set up a home studio to do commercial product work. Ian makes it difficult for her to work (seriously, this kid is really irritating and in a completely believable way), and she's having trouble picking up freelancing gigs. People don't take her seriously. It's a lovely home, and she can't get away from it.

It's a lovely home, and Deborah starts taking pictures of it. What else does she have to do? There's something curious in the bathroom - two mirrors, set up side-by-side, with another large mirror on the opposite wall. Deborah stretches into infinity here, and decides to take a picture of one of the small mirror - an antique mirror in a gold frame. The flash rattles around the room, and just for a second, we get a glimpse of something vast on the other side of that mirror. Just for a second. But that does it. Something's out, and people start dying.

Dark Mirror's strength is also its weakness - it avoids histrionics and laying everything out for the viewer. At its best, it keeps you guessing and doesn't provide tidy explanations for what happens (after all, how often do any of us know everything about a situation? Leaving things hanging is underrated, I think). Even things that would, in any other movie, be accompanied by music stings and sudden close-ups are allowed to breathe and settle in the air. It's both natural and surreal by turns. The downside to this approach is that it also lets some of the tension dissipate, so the pacing feels off and rather than a rising climax, we get a sequence of events that just sort of get weirder and weirder as things go on. As effective as the twisting sense of confinement and frustration is in the first half, there needs to be more sense of escalation in the second half to really bring it home.

Don't get me wrong - despite the flaws in pacing and action, this is a smart, understated film that avoids a lot of cliches. It's beautifully shot, making the most of light and reflective surfaces to convey what could easily come off as cheap and hokey. Any way you look at it - from either side of the glass - it's a story of an unhappy woman trapped by obligations, expectations, and the times in which she lives. The house is haunting her.