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.

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