Monday, June 17, 2024

“Burying Cattails and Monkey Nuts” - Mirror of Death (1988)

Also known by the highly original title Dead of Night, Mirror of Death (1988) is a supernatural slasher film set in glamorous Los Angeles. Its plot is also highly original, as it revolves around a mirror that is either possessed or haunted by a spirit (or possibly a demon). In fact, the film is reminiscent of such high-quality cinema as Demon Seed/Demon Rage in its blending of supernatural evil and beautiful people.

Of course, some of your universe's critics dismiss Mirror of Death. For example, reviewer Leofwine_draca writes, "this is a very low quality piece of film-making that looks pretty grotty if I'm honest." Reviewer BA_Harrison calls the film "instantly forgettable straight-to-video nonsense of the lowest order, a lifeless low-budget clunker with very few redeeming qualities." And reviewer lor_ summarizes the film eloquently (but incorrectly): "Cliched dialog reduces supernatural goings-on to mere doggerel."

Read on for an accurate appreciation of Mirror of Death...

Under the opening titles, we hear the harrowing sounds of a woman being abused by someone. After the credits are over, we watch Sara run through the streets of Los Angeles, finally finding a phone booth and calling her older sister April, who tells her she is only a few blocks from April’s house. Sara enters her sister’s house, bloody and beaten, interrupting Sara’s fancy house party. After all the guests leave, April puts Sara to bed and brings her food (and a sleeping pill). Actress April says she is going to “Frisco” (as residents of San Francisco love to call their city) on a movie shoot the next day and suggests Sara come with her, but Sara decides to stay in her sister’s house alone for a few days.

The next morning, Sara hears a man attempting to enter the empty house, so she picks up a handgun and walks around. Suddenly, the phone rings and we hear a gunshot; apparently, though the audience does not see this, Sara has reflexively shot a small mirror in the hallway. Sara speaks to April on the phone and fiddles with broken pieces of mirror. After the phone call, there is a knock on the door, and Sara (having forgotten hearing someone try to break into the house) opens the door, only to find her abusive boyfriend Bobby.

Sara tells him their relationship is over and Bobby, demonstrably the worst human on Earth, begins slapping her on the couch. Then he pulls her hair, forces her to tell him where the money she’s been saving is hidden, and for good measure tries to rape her.

Fortunately for Sara and the audience, the attempted rape is interrupted by Richard, April’s boyfriend. Bobby reluctantly leaves.

Later, when she is alone, Sara takes a bath. Naturally, she looks for a book to read and finds the typical book of magic rituals from Haiti that was left in the house during the party by a friend of April’s named Mensa. Sara reads from the book: “The power of candles…the burning of certain colors of candles has the power of gathering and releasing the spiritual forces into the circle of life.”

After her bath, Sara follows a ritual in the book (confusingly, the wind blows the book to a different page than Sara intended, so she mixes up various spells). She sprinkles a half-circle of baby powder on the carpet and lights two red candles, then says a series of magic words.

Shockingly, whatever the spell is works, and a transparent version of Sara walks out of an unbroken mirror and into Sara.

Sara looks at her face and all the scars from Bobby’s violence have disappeared.

The next morning, Sara uses lipstick to transform herself into a beautiful woman. (As in many movies of this type, the transformation is not noticeable, as Sara was a beautiful woman previously.) She looks into yet another mirror and, preparing to leave the house, says to her reflection, “Goodbye, Sara. I’ll give you back this body if it’s not to my liking.” (This implies the mirror-entity is not Sara herself.) Sara walks down the hallway, looks into still another mirror, and then leaves the house.

At a bar, the mirror Sara flirts with a male bartender, who despite the busyness of the bar pays attention only to Sara. He “mirrors” her flirting back to her, giving her a glass of water: “To the princess who orders water because she doesn’t have a quarter.”

She responds, “To the bartender who orders an empress a cognac in the hopes of…jumping in the sack.”

Sara then walks over to a pool table, picks up a cue, and makes a shot, then begins to dance by herself in a fashion that can only be called “unusual.”

Of course, her flirting and dancing work on the bartender. The filmmakers cut to the parking lot where Sara climbs into the bartender’s new car (nicknamed “Black Beauty”). He drives her to her sister’s house and they begin to make love while she calls herself Sara and tells him about her secret identity. “I became the Empress Sara when I married the emperor of Egypt.”

“I didn’t know they had emperors in Egypt.”

“Whatever,” she says dismissively. “I’m the goddess of love and beauty.”

Suddenly, instead of making love, Sara attacks the bartender when he tries to light a candle. “Stay away from my candles!” she yells, strangling him.

The next night, after Sara tells her sister she will meet her in San Francisco but fails to go to the airport, Sara enters what may or may not be the same bar as the previous night. The bar is now playing salsa music. Sara immediately catches the eye of a young man at the bar and the two of them dance next to the bar in a fashion that can only be called “even more unusual.”

As the camera moves down to focus on Sara’s backside, the filmmakers fade to Sara and the young man driving through Los Angeles in “Black Beauty.” The smooth young man says, “I like fast cars and classy ladies.”

“What else do you like?” Sara asks.

“Checking out your performance capabilities,” he says, perhaps a bit indelicately.

Sara responds with a laugh, “Why don’t you just pretend that I’m a Porsche, and I’ll drive you right out of this world.”

The filmmakers cut to an extended but non-explicit sex scene in a shower, and then to the next morning as the young man makes coffee. Sara lies in bed, still asleep, as the man begins to write a thank you note (as would all lovers, I assume) using red lipstick on her bedroom mirror.

Sara immediately jumps up. “Get away from my mirror, you dead fool!” She attacks him and kills him with a tiny curved knife.

Later, Sara stares into a mirror, where her mirror self tells herself she is releasing her so her mirror self can gather her strength. Immediately, Sara goes to bed.

Later, Bobby breaks into the house through an open window. Charmingly (I use the word sarcastically), he greets Sara by strangling her from behind, then plays it off as a joke. Sara tells him to get out. He tries to rape her on her bed but relents. When he sees the red candles flanking her makeup mirror, he jumps to a fairly perceptive conclusion. “What are you burning those red candles for, anyway? You becoming one of those religious fanatics or something?”

“Bobby, I’m trying to concentrate.”

“Hey, witch, you’re not trying to put one of those voodoo trips on me, are you, with them red candles?”

Bobby attacks her again, but Sara’s mirror personality finally returns. She pushes Bobby onto the bed. Then she begins hovering in the air, her face distorted and demonic, before she kills him.

Later, in one of the film’s most effective scenes, Sara, who does not remember the murders committed by her mirror self, discovers three dead bodies in her sister’s house (they all spontaneously fall out of various closets). She faints.

After night falls and Sara remains unconscious, the mirror on the wall begins to speak, telling her to wake up. When she does so, the mirror entices her to allow it to take her over again.

The same night, April returns to her house to find it empty, except for several red candles burning in front of a mirror. April searches for Sara, finally finding her in the backyard. April asks, inexplicably, “What are you doing out here, baby girl? Burying cattails and monkey nuts?” Then she sees that Sara has been digging. “Damn,” she says, with some impropriety, “this looks about the same size as a grave.”

Suddenly, Sara’s mirror self hits April over the head with a shovel.

The next day, April stumbles through the yard until she is discovered by her boyfriend Richard. April concludes that Sara is doing something weird with the witchcraft book and candles. Inappropriately because of April’s head injury, Richard begins to kiss her, unaware that Sara is in the house. When Sara walks into the room, April asks her, sensibly, why she hit her with a shovel, but Sara has no memory of that incident.

When April mentions Bobby, it triggers panic in Sara, who runs to the closet to find his body. There are no bodies in the house, so Richard says dismissively, “Maybe it was a dream, Sara. Maybe it was television.”

Instead of reporting the story to the police, April and Richard allow Sara to rest in her room. Later, however, they see her perform a chanting ritual with the candles, and they also see the mirror entity float toward Sara. They intervene, attempting to pull her away from “Empress Sura,” but the entity can make Sara float in the air.

April throws something at the mirror and it shatters, sending the mirror entity away.

“Damn!” says Richard uselessly. “What the hell was that?”

April, more helpfully, tries to talk sense into Sara. “Damn it, Sara, you are being possessed by some ugly demon!”

In the film’s final act, Sara dreams about murdering her sister with a knife. She also sees her mirror self in the bathroom mirror. Frustrated about what to do, Sara, April, and Richard look through the yellow pages for spiritual consultants. They find someone named John Smith. Thus, 15 minutes before the film ends, the filmmakers introduce their quirkiest character, a psychic who rides a bicycle through LA traffic to meet with them at night. He introduces himself by saying, “Hi. John Smith’s the name and spirits are my game." He adds, amusingly considering he is a purported psychic, "Sorry I’m late. I had trouble following your directions.”

John starts lighting blue candles to slow down Sara’s supernatural responses. He begins a spell using various chemicals and matches. 

Unfortunately, the Empress Sura returns to Sara’s mirror and she begins to transform. If she kills people tonight, the transformation will be permanent; Sara’s mirror self will replace her non-mirror self.

In the climax, the mirror Sara zaps John’s eyes and telekinetically forces April to shoot a gun at Richard. Then the police break into the house, but they are no match for the mirror Sara’s zapping powers.

Finally, April shoots Sara, forcing the spirit out of her body but apparently killing Sara. 

The spirit, now out of Sara, attacks John but is shot and killed by the police. John takes credit for stopping the spirit, as everything was fake — Sara was shot with blanks. 

Amusingly, Sara gives a box of broken mirror shards to the policemen. “Lock her up and throw away the key,” Sara instructs the policemen.

“You got it,” one of them responds as they walk away without investigating the crime scene.

In the film’s shocking coda, an unhoused old woman finds the mirror shards in a dumpster in an alley. Nothing happens. She pushes her shopping cart away.

The End

Mirror of Death is a clever film in that Sara's transformation is so subtle that, until the climactic events, it is ambiguous whether Sara is being possessed by a spirit of if everything is in her head. Both the acting and the filmmaking attempt to make it clear when Sara is replaced by Sura, both through exhortations that she appears more beautiful than before and through more colorful cinematography, contrasting with the dull colors that surround Sara when she is simply Sara. The viewer can determine whether the filmmakers were successful in distinguishing Sara and her mirror self, but I can say that I was only confused half a dozen times about whether she was possessed or not, so I consider the filmmakers successful. 

Mirror of Death is another film that would have benefitted from a sequel. It raises many questions and then never answers them -- primary among them, who is Sura and is she really some kind of Egyptian empress? And how did she get in the mirror? While these questions do not distract from the quality of Mirror of Death, they would have been entertaining to ponder in a sequel. Most of all, however, a sequel would benefit from the presence of John Smith, a fun character who only appears for a few minutes in this film but who cheerfully saves the day. John Smith is like John Constantine if he were an LA surfer dude. Could there be a more interesting character in the history of cinema? Perhaps...but perhaps not.