Mirror Mirror

(Marina Sargenti, USA, 1990)


Marina Sargenti’s Mirror Mirror is a little-known gem by someone who later – alas – worked mainly in television (including episodes of Xena and Models Inc.), and has seemingly disappeared from the audiovisual scene altogether in the 21st century, beyond some minor credits. On first discovering her debut feature at a small festival in 1991, I tagged Sargenti as “a director to watch”. Now, almost 30 years on, I’m wondering where she went. This is true of many talented filmmakers, but it seems especially true of those women who broke into the B-rungs of popular genre cinema during the 1980s (the same can be said of, for instance, Joan Freeman and Kristine Peterson).


The presence of Karen Black and Yvonne De Carlo in the cast of Mirror Mirror may suggest camp parody of the horror genre (in fact, they give commendably restrained performances), but Sargenti clearly knows and loves the modern tradition of horror as well as any fan or scholar, and has more serious business on her mind. It’s not camp, but neither is it an obviously or unambiguously feminist reworking/critique of horror. That’s where it starts to get really interesting; it’s nothing like a clean, UK Channel 4 number about the female psyche in the vein of Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse (1988).


As the tale of a righteously vengeful teenager, Megan (Rainbow Harvest), controlling and being controlled by demonic powers, Mirror Mirror naturally recalls both the letter and the spirit of Brian De Palma’s classic, Carrie (1976) – mixed with a little of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). At the same time, it forges a strong, suggestive link between two specific strands of women's cinema – a link that ties together in the protean genre of the Female Gothic, with its many available tropes.


On one level, Sargenti pays explicit homage to Maya Deren's avant-garde classic, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – a film about a woman destroyed by her mirror and her mirror-image. Deren's extraordinary, powerful and enduringly influential work is about the instability of a woman’s identity, and the pervasiveness, the terrifying formlessness, of her justly paranoid dread. On another level, Sargenti senses that the cinematic language which might best embody and express this kind of dread today is to be found directly in the contemporary horror movie – films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989) and Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989) or – to take a few different exemplars directed by women – Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989) and Susan Shadburne’s unjustly forgotten Shadow Play (1986).


But I don't want to make it out to be some intellectual essay-film. Mirror Mirror is visceral, energetic, hallucinatory and – like many good horror movies – by the end, fantastically incoherent. How could it be otherwise? As a full-on horror piece directed by a woman (something which was still, at the dawn of the ‘90s, a relatively rare occurrence), it generates florid psychodrama from the symbolism of mirrors – narcissism, split identity, the beast on the other side of the glass – in order to plumb the daily, lurking terrors of patriarchy.

© Adrian Martin September 1991 / June 1993 / July 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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