Mirror Mirror (1990)

Mirror Mirror first published by VODzilla.co

“I want everything back to the way it was!” shouts teenager Nikki Chandler (Krisin Dattilo) near the end of Marina Sargenti’s Mirror Mirror. It is a typical adolescent cry, as a young person, confronted with her own changing self and resistant to the new responsibilities of adulthood, just wants to crawl back to the greater comfort of their childhood’s ever-receding history. The problem, though, is that the wishing mirror which has given Marina Sargenti’s feature debut its title comes with its own history – a history that is destined to repeat itself both through Nikki and through a glass darkly. 

On the one hand, the duplication of the word ‘mirror’ in the title already points to that other magic looking glass from the distant history presented in Snow White – and sure enough, the fraught mother-daughter relationship that drives the Grimms’ fairtyale is reechoed here, as recently widowed, somewhat self-absorbed Susan Gordon (Karen Black) moves from Los Angeles to a new suburban neighbourhood, and struggles to rebuild not just her own life (including her sex life), but also her fractured relationship with teenaged daughter Megan (the wonderfully named Rainbow Harvest). On the other hand, Megan is about to discover that the large antique mirror in her new bedroom – left there by the previous occupant, crazy old Mary Weatherworth, whose sister Elizabeth had mysteriously vanished many decades earlier – can make all her dreams come true, although only at a terrible price.

For the most part, Mirror Mirror is concerned with Megan’s adolescent rites of passage, as she – already alienated by her shyness and her all-black lace-and-frills outfits – struggles to navigate the ‘class’ politics of her new school, to get noticed by the boy she likes, to look out for her new best friend Nikki and to give as good as she gets to her enemy, the queen bee (and love rival) Charleen Kane (Charlie Spradling). Yet Megan’s transition from gawky girlhood is figured as a demonic makeover, with the mirror the dark medium to newfound teen empowerment, as an ancient, eternal evil (narcissism, perhaps) seduces Megan into helping it emerge and overtake her identity – and her life. From here on in, Megan’s rise to supremacy plays out like an old-school slasher – except that, in Megan’s new school, the perpetrator of all these serial deaths is a disembodied representation of the girl’s own fantasy-fuelled will, and takes down its/her prey via illness, steam pipes, glass sherds, ghostly doubles and even an InSinkErator. 

  There is another kind of history reflected in Mirror Mirror. For it comes with a series of explicit references to previous horror films. On the one hand, there is the casting of Karen Black, whose earlier vehicle Burnt Offerings (1976) this reimagines, at least in its domestic scenes. Then there is Yvonne De Carlo, once famous for embodying Lily Munster in early-Sixties television’s The Munsters, and now reappearing, significantly, as a dealer in second-hand goods. Megan is possessed not just by an age-old entity, but also by the recent-past performances of Winona Ryder, taking the sociopathic high-school satire of Veronica from Michael Lehman’s Heathers (1988), and the hard-goth costumery and occult experimentation of Lydia from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). “Lighten up, this is a joke, for god’s sake – it’s not like we’re gonna cover her in pig’s blood or anything,” says Charleen, expressly comparing and contrasting the bullying pranks to which Megan is being subjected to those in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). Meanwhile, no sooner has Mr Veze (William Sanderson), arriving after the death of one of Susan’s diuretic dogs, announced that he is from “Happy Valley Pet Cemetery“, than we cut to a surreal reprise of the previous year’s Pet Sematary, another mainstream horror directed by a woman (Mary Lambert), as Megan wishes for her father to return from the grave, and is then confronted with his nightmarish zombie form. 

All this reconstitution of past horror elements also reveals, ironically enough, a distorted glimpse of the future. For if the official history of Nineties genre cinema records that the run of self-aware, postmodern horror that would dominate the late Nineties began with Wes Craven’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), in fact this self-reflexive impulse can already be discerned by anyone who looks into Mirror Mirror – not least when Nikki’s appetitive boyfriend Ron (Ricky Paull Goldin) says of Megan: “I told you, she is whacked – she thinks that she’s, like, the lead in a horror film or something.” And if Sargenti’s film comes with obvious, well-advertised influences, it has also had its own subsequent influence on films as varied as Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996), Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013). 

Bits of Mirror Mirror are undoubtedly clunky. Some jokes miss their target, some scenes feel unduly stretched, and the cheesiness, though integral to the suburban satire, works against the frights (even if some of the deaths are genuinely grisly). Yet Sargenti and her (mostly female) co-writing team of sisters Annette and Gina Cascone, and Yuri Zeltser, find a refreshing way to reduce their male characters to moronic lunks, and to show young women all too aware of how best to exploit their burgeoning sexuality to their own ends (especially in the hilariously eroticised video ad for Charleen’s School-Presidential bid). 

Summary: Marina Sargenti’s horror film holds a postmodern mirror to teen empowerment, narcissism and sociopathy, putting the entity in adolescent identity. 

© Anton Bitel