Judge Daryl Loomis is scared of his reflection.
Behind the reflection…is what you fear most.
Though I might have been initially scared off by a horror film starring actors from television shows I would never watch, Dark Mirror turns out to be a high quality ghost story with surprisingly strong performances and a nicely ambiguous story. I never would have expected to recommend this film, but that shows what I know.
Facts of the Case
Deborah and Jim Martin (Lisa Vidal, E.R.; David Chisum, One Life to Live) have just moved from Seattle to Los Angeles with their son, Ian (Joshua Pelegrin), for Jim's new programming job. They're in love with the house they move into; it's old and quaint, covered in Chinese cut glass and, to put it over the top for them, a famous painter lived in the house many years ago. Deborah is an aspiring photographer herself, and is fascinated by the artistic history of the place. The light is fantastic inside, so she starts taking pictures of the mirrors and windows, but that causes some really weird things to happen. Whenever she takes a picture of somebody, they disappear. If that's not enough to tax an artist, she finds out that the painter and his family disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She starts to see a figure that looks like the pictures of him that she's seen, but nobody else sees what she does. Is she crazy, or is her camera really a window into the demon realm, with spirits waiting to be released to wreak havoc on this family?
Do mirrors hold the secrets of the past? Does the ancient art of Feng Shui really exist to capture the souls of demons? Is Deborah just a crazy nut? These are the essential questions asked in Pablo Proenza's debut indie thriller, Dark Mirror. Proenza touches on each of these questions from the opening moments and hits his notes well enough to intrigue his audience for the slow, quiet buildup to come.
It's easy to see that something's wrong with this house. From the moment they go inside, the light shines through the glass at strange angles and the neighbors always seem to be looking through the windows. While Deborah has rejected every house they've looked at without reason, this one has some pull on her. It takes her only a moment to decide to buy the house, regardless of what her family thinks. As a stay-at-home mom who wants to get back into professional photography, she takes the opportunity to shoot the different odd aspects of the house. Immediately, weird things start to happen. At first, just the perspective of the pictures seems a little off, but soon she starts to see faces that don't exist and doors that show up in mirrors, but not in reality. Of course, nobody believes her; they say she just needs to get out of the house but, when she does, her life really goes nuts. Anybody she takes a picture of disappears later the same night. Between her faith that something otherworldly is at hand and her family's terrified belief that she's killing all these people, Proenza gives us a concise conflict to carry us quickly through the story.
The entire success of the film comes down to the outstanding performance of Lisa Vidal in the lead role. Dark Mirror is nearly a one-woman show, and Vidal carries the film on her shoulders with admirable strength. As the story unfolds, Jim becomes more work-obsessed and more insensitive to Deborah's fears. Ian looks pretty freaked-out much of the time. His mom's acting like a big loon, so it makes sense, but doesn't add a lot to the story. That leaves Deborah and her brief interactions with her family and neighbors; the film is all her. Vidal must run the gauntlet to play loving wife, protective mother, struggling artist, serious detective, and psycho killer all at the same time; and it's amazing how thoroughly she succeeds. She performs each with equal vigor and, though it occasionally feels a little stilted, you can't really ask for much better from a film at this level.
David Chisum's role is much smaller. He is suitably disagreeable, but he has a good chemistry with Vidal that makes their marriage believable. Joshua Pelegrin does well enough for his age at looking freaked-out and this is all that was asked of him. The few supporting characters add a little flavor to the film without making themselves a central part of the story. Of particular note are Lupe Ontiveros (Real Women Have Curves) as Deborah's mother, with whom she has a realistically strained relationship, and Christine Lakin (who didn't look like this in Step by Step) who plays the aspiring actress that is a lightning rod for much of Deborah's paranoia.
MPI has done a reasonably good job with their release of Dark Mirror. It's nothing special, but more than you often find with indie horror releases. There is some very good Super-16 cinematography in this film by Armando Salas, who spends a lot of time playing with angles and reflections. Thankfully, though there is some residual grain on the image, the transfer accurately represents his work. With a high level of detail and accurate colors, there is nothing to complain about in this transfer. The surround sound is nearly as good, with full use of the channels, clear dialog, and appropriate use of sound effects. There isn't a lot in the way of features, but they are good quality. The commentary track with director Proenza, co-writer Matthew Reynolds, and producer Erin Ploss-Campoamor is a notch above your average indie commentary. Dark Mirror is the first feature for each and they lived together in the house where they filmed, so they have a lot to say about both the idiosyncrasies of the house and the film in general, of which they are rightfully very proud. A short making-of piece relays much of the same information, the single deleted scene is completely pointless, and the trailer is a trailer. This is an above average release for a well-above average thriller.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the film is mostly satisfying, I can't help but be a little disappointed with the ending of the film. Without giving anything away, there are two options here: either she's nuts or there's a ghostly killer on the loose. The film is designed to have an ambiguous ending, but I think they left it a little too open. If it's the former, then why has she gone crazy? If it's the latter, how did it happen? A plausible explanation for one or both would have helped the film to end on a stronger note.
As far as low budget indie horror films go, Dark Mirror is pretty good. It's not the scariest film you'll see, but it is well-written and very nicely performed. There is quite a lot to like about this one.
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