Sunday 24 August 2014

The Mirror

Director: Ed Boase
Writer: Ed Boase
Producers:  Ed Boase, Hamish Moseley
Cast: Jemma Dallender, Joshua Dickinson, Nate Fallows
Country: UK
Year: 2014
Reviewed from: screener (Matchbox Films)

There’s a bit in one of Dara O’Briain’s stand-up videos where he talks about a feature he saw in the Evening Standard on ‘Ten medical symptoms you must not ignore’, of which the top three were: “rectal bleeding … loss of height … and sudden blindness! Who ignores ‘sudden blindness’?” In The Mirror, a character wakes up completely blind, with massively dilated pupils, and both he and his friends decide that the best thing for him is not a trip to the emergency eye clinic but to just sleep it off. It was at this point that I realised the film’s plot, such as it is, depends in large part on the characters doing completely stupid things. Which is a shame.

The Mirror is the 428th found footage horror movie released this year, by my reckoning, but it at least presents an original justification for its hackneyed let’s-film-everything premise. Flatmates Matt, Jemma and Steve are going to apply for the James Randi $1,000,000 Prize and are filming themselves as their application video. A little background I feel is in order here, as there’s none in the film so viewers unfamiliar with Randi and his work may be confused.

James Randi is a celebrated American magician (now retired) and sceptic. A large part of his life has been spent debunking paranormal claims of all sorts, most famously Uri Geller’s ridiculous spoon-bending antics in the 1970s. In 1964 Randi established a $1,000 prize, on offer to anyone who could provide evidence of supernatural or paranormal abilities or phenomena under controlled conditions. Over the years, the prize money has increased and since 1996 it has been a million bucks. There have been hundreds of applicants, all of whom have agreed to controlled conditions, all of whom have failed miserably (of course) and most of whom have immediately claimed that the conditions they agreed to were unfair.

To save having to deal with every wacko and fruitcake on the planet, Randi used to stipulate that he would only accept applications from people whose ‘abilities’ had already generated some press coverage or who had the backing of an academic institution. In 2011, the rules were changed to allow people to submit a video via YouTube as an alternative. And that’s what Matt, Jemma and Steve are planning to do. Apparently.

The three live in a modern flat in a converted warehouse. Matt and Jemma are an item. Steve is the best-friend gooseberry. Occasional possible hints at a sublimated love triangle are so vague and fleeting that they may just be my imagination (in other words, if there’s supposed to be any sexual tension between Jemma and Steve, nothing is made of it).

But what precisely is the paranormal malarkey which they think will net them a cool million from the James Randi Educational Foundation where so many others have failed? It’s… a haunted mirror. They have bought on eBay a large antique mirror which is supposedly ‘haunted’ in some never-clarified way. And so confident are they that this nonspecific ‘hauntedness’ will be not only genuine but also visibly apparent that they are prepared to invest considerable time, effort and money in videoing the mirror from the moment it arrives. They put it on the living room wall, set up a camera to film it 24 hours a day, and also invest in a second camera and a Go-Pro because “we must film everything.”

And there, as so often, is where the whole ‘found footage’ thing becomes an intrusion, having the very opposite effect on the verisimilitude of the movie to that which the film-makers intend. You don't have to film everything; that’s just creating an arbitrary narrative requirement out of nothing. Furthermore, you’re not going to film everything, if only because you can’t film everything. You’re looking at 24 hours of footage every day from the ‘mirror-cam’ and, say, 16 hours each from the other two cameras, assuming you switch them off when you’re asleep.  So that’s 56 hours of tedious nothing-happening footage to review and edit every day. In a very short space of time most of your personal footage will be of you hunkered over a laptop editing the footage from the previous day: footage of you editing stuff from the day before. It’s going to get so recursive you’ll eventually disappear with a pop like some sort of digital oozlum bird.

As often happens when I watch a found footage film, I rapidly realised that the concept added nothing to the story, which could (and should) have been told better without every single thing being a POV shot. That wouldn’t detract from those occasions when POV was relevant. We could still have been shown footage from the mirror-cam, for instance, staring through its unblinking lens at a reflection of the camera itself while our own vision flicks around the glass rectangle and the ‘other room’ it reveals, searching for something spookily out of place.

Good luck with that by the way. Let me tell you here that this is a possibly unique entry in the subgenre of ‘haunted mirror’ horror films in that absolutely nothing unusual or spooky appears in the mirror. Nothing. Nothing ever. It just shows the room, the camera and anyone standing in front of it. We don’t see anything out of the ordinary, nor do the three flatmates. To put it bluntly, the fact that the ‘haunted’ item is a mirror is completely irrelevant. It could have been a haunted candlestick, a haunted alarm clock, a haunted pizza-cutter or a haunted Swedish-made penis enlarger for all the difference it would make to the plot. It is, in short, just A Mirror.

So as I say, a regular film could still have shown us the initially intriguing but ultimately disappointing mirror-cam footage, and could also have included footage from the other camera and the Go-Pro if their existence was considered relevant to the plot. Heck, there’s no law against just showing a character’s point of view. Film-makers have done that for decades. It helps the audience to identify with and empathise with the character in question: we see through their eyes and for that instant we are that character. Found footage as a format destroys that identification and empathy by making everything POV – even moreso here as the multiple cameras mean that often we are initially unsure whose point of view we are actually viewing.

Now, if the mirror itself doesn’t do anything, what constitutes the plot? Well, Matt starts sleepwalking, becomes increasingly irascible and refuses to share the Go-Pro footage with the others. There are some sharp kitchen knives which become relevant in a way that I won’t describe in detail to avoid spoilers, except to note that seven minutes from the end of the film one character finally has the bleeding obvious idea of, you know, hiding them. Matt’s behaviour is blamed by Jemma and Steve on the mirror - but there’s no connection at all, except that he started acting oddly after the mirror was brought into the flat. Honestly, it’s astounding how irrelevant the mirror is to the plot of The Mirror. All through the film I was expecting something to happen, something to appear, but there’s nothing. The closest we get is an odd coincidence in one of several 1920s newspaper clippings stuck to the back of the mirror for some never-explained reason (these are dated very precisely, so either the 1920s clipper carefully wrote the date on each bit of paper or they are all from the corner of the page).

Actual events are few and far between. There is a short scene with a Ouija board which made my heart sink but nothing comes of it and it’s never mentioned again. Maybe there’s some sort of EU directive that all low-budget horror movies must contain a Ouija board scene. There is also a sequence where the trio return from an evening out to find the door ajar and the flat wrecked, which they are sure is conclusive proof of ghostly activity. And not, you know, burglars. Which is a more likely explanation, even in a ghost movie, because why the hell would a paranormal entity emanating from an item in the flat need to open the door?

So do they report this break-in to the police? Apparently not. (That is: if they do tell the cops, we’re not told or shown it and it’s never referred to.) Instead, they swiftly restore the flat to its previous pristine condition and never mention it again. And it is pristine, this place. It doesn’t look at all like three young people live there. I know young people are duller and more boring than in my day and it doesn’t have to look like the house in The Young Ones, but they would still make a mess, they would still leave clutter. Young people still put posters on their walls; I’ve seen them. But not these three dullards apparently. No attempt has been made to dress the location to make it believable, thereby further robbing the film of credibility.

In that respect, this cypher of a location reflects the three cyphers who live there. It dawned on me halfway through that these three people have no existence outside of the film. Are they students? Do they have jobs? They're certainly not unemployed slackers in that nice flat. Do they have families or any other friends? Who knows? The three of them and their one location are a self-contained microcosm which exists only for the purposes of the 83 minutes we spend with them, and as such neither they nor their lives are believable in any way.

The upshot of all this is that The Mirror, I am sad to report, is very, very dull. Almost nothing happens, and when it does happen, it’s not interesting or believable. About an hour in, this pattern is briefly broken by a couple of nasty, gory moments (one of them completely given away by the DVD sleeve!) which are the indisputable high points of the film. Not because of the gore, but because something freaking happens. Furthermore, this overall lack of story has the unfortunate side-effect of allowing the viewer to pay more attention to the nuts and bolts of the film and hence further flags up the inadequacies of the found footage conceit. Unless a camera is being carried by someone in a state of panic, everything is framed just so. Nobody’s head is ever cut off, except for one shot where the director doesn’t want us to see a character’s face so the frame cuts them off at the neck. And everything is lit to be spooky; I lost track of the number of scenes where someone prowls around the flat in semi-darkness when there is no reason at all not to just switch on the damn light.

On the plus side however, at least none of the footage breaks up and goes BZZZT! like in Hungerford and Dark Vision. These guys bought decent cameras that actually work. There is just a little bit of digital blocking on occasions which is so believable that it might even be real.

Beyond the camera-work it’s the editing (by director Ed Boase) that really lets the film down; not because it’s bad but because – you guessed it – it’s good. The whole thing has been professionally edited like a regular movie. The use of multiple cameras to film the same thing results in lots of cuts between characters, cuts to close-ups, elliptical time-lapses, the sort of construction that we expect in a movie but which completely destroys the premise that this ‘footage’ has been ‘found’. A successful found footage movie, like Cloverfield for example, works on the premise that a series of long, unedited takes have been shot in chronological sequence on a single camcorder. Once that idea is lost, we’re no longer dealing with found footage.

A caption at the end of the film reads: “This footage was recovered by police in the search for the missing flatmates. It has since been submitted to the James Randi Foundation. The Mirror has never been found.” What? Did the police take the hours and hours and hours of footage on the cameras and laptops in the flat and edit together about an hour and a half of it very carefully, using lots of cinematic conventions, including plenty of character-establishing stuff from before anyone started acting oddly? Oh, and then they decided to submit it to the JREF, did they? Because that million dollars could buy them some shiny new walkie-talkies and new upholstery for the squad cars, I suppose…

And just what is it that is being submitted for Randi’s prize anyway? There’s nothing supernatural, paranormal or in any way unexplainable in any of this footage: no ghosts, no poltergeists, no telekinesis. Looks to me like a simple case of mental breakdown and psychosis which is blamed on a ‘haunted’ mirror in a classic case of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, a common delusion familiar to anyone interested in scepticism. Plus the fact that these people don’t call 999 when (a) their flat is ransacked or (b) one of them is rendered blind proves what morons they are and doesn’t give me confidence in anything they say on screen. (The non-supernatural explanation for the blindness is shown to us beforehand via the Go-Pro footage but apparently neither of the other two bothered to watch this.)

What a thoroughly disappointing and dispiriting experience The Mirror is. Which is a real shame because this has obviously been made with care and with passion. Technically it’s highly commendable (which is, as noted, not necessarily a good thing in this type of film). The largely improvised dialogue is smart and believable, even if the characters and plot aren’t. Above all, it features three absolutely terrific performances from three very talented actors. But since their characters have no reality, the story doesn’t hang together in any way, and the audience is constantly distracted by not wanting to miss the spooky image in the mirror which must surely, eventually appear… no? … ah well … this excellent acting is wasted in a film which, with the best will in the world, simply doesn’t work.

Jemma is played by Jemma Dallender, who also starred in Community and I Spit on Your Grave 2. Matt is Joshua Dickinson, creator/star of both the stage and screen versions of Opening Night of the Living Dead. And Steve is Nate Fallows who was in an episode of Whitechapel. If nothing else, The Mirror is a great showcase for all three. Brief roles for Abby Ford (Prisoner of Azkaban) and Roisin Rae in exterior scenes round out the cast.

The Mirror is based on a real case, sort of. In February 2013 two men in London advertised a ‘haunted mirror’ on eBay, a novelty story which attracted the attention of the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post (but no other papers, who could see what a load of crap it was). A quick google will bring up press coverage of these guys who allegedly picked up an old antique mirror from a skip, painted the frame and then started getting all manner of random, spooky occurrences, ranging from the nebulous (feelings of dread – jeez, get over it) to the ectoplasmic (smoky apparitions and other stuff that might have enlivened this film). I get the impression that the more remarkable phenomena were added to the story to keep the press interested, but maybe that’s just me. Incidentally, I love how the liberal Huff Post refers to these two men as ‘a couple’ but in the conservative Mail they are merely ‘flatmates’!

As a result of this publicity the mirror apparently sold for £100 to an anonymous buyer. But as many web commenters observed, if the thing that these guys got for free was causing them so much upset, why didn’t they just chuck it back in the skip instead of keeping it in the house while the eBay ad ran and gullible/bored journos came round to interview them.

Ed Boase also came round to interview them and this forms a 14-minute extra on the Mirror DVD. He then apparently decided that this idea of a haunted mirror would make a great horror film and set to making it, the finished movie premiering at the 2014 Frightfest just ahead of the disc’s release. Being of a cynical turn of mind, I can’t help wondering whether the two men are actually mates of Ed’s and the whole thing around the eBay ad was just a big scam, designed to provide a convenient publicity hook for the film when it finally appeared. Especially as Ed has said he was offered the chance to use the actual original mirror in the film, which shouldn’t have been possible if it really had been snapped up by an anonymous buyer. Frankly, if the whole story is BS and the 14-minute interview is fake, then I find that more interesting and entertaining than the feature, which surely was never the intention.

The Mirror was shot (as Haunted Mirror) over nine days in the summer of 2013 with a couple of pick-ups later for brief outdoor scenes. The budget of £10,000 apparently included 500 quid to the real mirror guys for exclusive rights to their story, which was a pretty good deal as it’s five times what they got for their actual crappy old (non-haunted) mirror on eBay! They also get a ‘special thanks’ credit. The location was an unfurnished flat in East London, which a company was paid to furnish, but the absence of a production designer (none is credited) is glaring. The place looks like these three have just moved in (as indeed they have).

Cinematographer Keidrich Wasley does a good job on his feature debut after numerous shorts and music videos, adroitly handling the different light levels (even if, as noted, they’re not always needed) and letting us believe that the cast are always holding the camera. He also shares story and editing credits with Boase. Tim Quinton (Doctor Who, Bloody Cuts, The Harry Hill Movie) designed and applied the prosthetics for the later, nasty bits, while Natalie Wickens (Dead Cert, Devil’s Playground, Umbrage, Zombie Diaries 2) handled the regular make-up. There is no credited costume designer. Neill Gorton’s company Millennium FX provided ‘sfx’ but these don’t extend as far as any apparitions, ghosts or demons, sadly. Indie rock quintet Of Mercia were responsible for the music apparently but I can’t honestly recall any; the found footage concept precludes incidental music and the end credits play out in silence. Maybe they were on a radio or something. Was there a radio in any scene?

This is Boase’s second feature after Blooded, a 2011 BHR spin on The Most Dangerous Game in which hunt protestors chase down hunters. I haven’t seen that but Variety called it “a promising but flawed debut … [with] … a half-clever, half-pointless pseudo-documentary framing device”. On the evidence of The Mirror - which I really, really wanted to like more than I did – Boase has the talent and just needs to channel it into a feature that relies on a well-thought-out story and credible characters rather than a novelty filmic concept, especially when it’s not such a novelty any more.

MJS rating: B-

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