Mirror Mirror (1990)

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three star

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Every now and then a great celebrity name like a Rip Torn or a Royalty Hightower will jump out at you as a kind of artform unto itself, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a name quite like Rainbow Harvest before. Ms. Harvest was an actress & a public figure for a brief stretch in the early 90s, making something of a career out of vaguely resembling Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. At least, that’s the most I can gather from Google Image searches & her lead role in the 1990 horror cheapie Mirror Mirror. In a sea of 90s-era pastel prairie dresses & loose, faded blue jeans, Rainbow Harvest stands out vividly as a goth teen who lives every day like it’s Halloween. I can’t say there’s anything particularly exceptional about her performance in Mirror Mirror, but it is exceedingly difficult to take your eyes off her and her name alone ensures you’ll never forget who she is.

If there’s anything especially interesting about Mirror Mirror‘s narrative it’s that it telegraphs the basic elements of two superior horror movies that would follow years after its arrival: Oculus & The Craft. A goth teen arrives in a new town with a dead dad and an excess of angst. Feeling like a total outsider, she finds solace in newfound friends that grant her dangerous witchcraft powers that allow her to enact petty revenge on her bullies. Where Mirror Mirror deviates from The Craft is that this goth teen’s black magic friendships are with an evil antique mirror and the demon who lives inside it, recalling the basic premise of Oculus. Of course, our goth girl antihero’s new powers backfire and her casual evocation of the mirror demon snowballs in a dangerous, deadly way. The only thing that subverts what you might expect from this Oculus vs. The Craft plot mashup is a supernatural twist ending that acts as a last minute rug pull. I guess there’s also a slight novelty to the outsider teen being bullied actually being the real monster in a story like this, but teen girls are punished for transgressing outside the bounds of their limited agency all the time in film, so that aspect ultimately feels like par for the course.

Mirror Mirror is a decidedly minor work despite those narrative prototypes for better horror films to follow, but it’s charming enough in its smaller details to stand out as an entertaining trifle. The very idea of dark mirror realm magic has a dream logic charm to it that leads to some inventive teen bully kills. As the mirror oozes blood & covers itself with flies, its victims similarly bleed and swat away pests. There are plenty of horror films where girls are killed in showers, but this is the first I’ve seen where girls are killed by a shower, not to mention at the hands of an off-screen mirror demon. Speaking of the demon, my favorite scene in Mirror Mirror is a ludicrous moment if morbid teen narcissism where Rainbow Harvest makes out with her own reflection, Neon Demon style, and the devil’s hand extends from behind the glass to feel her up. It’s wildly over-the-top stuff the film could’ve used more of. Mirror Mirror also could’ve used more of actors like Karen Black (extending her horror resume beyond titles like Trilogy of Terror, Burnt Offerings, and Invaders from Mars & curiously trying on a new wig every few scenes) & Steven Tobolowsky (a That Guy! type most recognizable from his insurance salesman role in Groundhog Day) to add an air of legitimacy to what often feels like straight-to-VHS schlock.

I still found the movie enjoyable overall, though. It’s at least 20 minutes overlong for what it accomplishes, but it boasts enough inventive kills, 90s fashion quirks, and trippy plot twists in its goth girl/antique mirror buddy picture premise to remain a delight. I’d be a liar, though, if I didn’t admit that the most memorable aspect of Mirror Mirror was the real-life name of its star. Rainbow Harvest will likely stick with me as a celebrity for far longer than anything she actually did in-character. It’s the kind of name that is a work of art all on its own.

-Brandon Ledet

Burnt Offerings (1976)

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fourstar

Dan Curtis is most well remembered as the creator of gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (poorly remade as an irreverent fish-out-of-water comedy starring Johnny Depp in 2012), but  remembrance of his legacy should also include his direction of 1976’s horror film Burnt Offerings. A kind of haunted house flick, the story concerns a run-down neoclassical manor home and the spell that it casts over a hapless family in order to rejuvenate itself.

The owners of the mansion are the wheelchair-bound Arnold Allardyce and his sister Roz (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart, prominently featured in the film’s trailer but in what amount to extended cameos). They are delighted when the Rolf family, consisting of father Ben (Oliver Reed), mother Marian (Karen Black, whom Curtis directed the previous year in Trilogy of Terror), and twelve-year-old son Davey (Lee Montgomery, future heartthrob of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), express interest in renting the house. Of course, for the low rental price of $900 for the whole summer, there is one caveat; the family must care for the ancient Mrs. Allardyce, a recluse who requires only that meals be left outside her door thrice daily. Ben is resistant at first, but Marian, already affected by the house, insists, and the trio, along with Ben’s elderly Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), arrive at the mansion the following week.

Things seem to go well for a while. Davis is a particular treasure as the wisecracking Aunt Liz, and although Marian becomes more withdrawn (becoming obsessed with Mrs. Allardyce’s collection of photographs and listening to a music box for hours on end), the rest of the family bonds on their vacation. Things begin to take a turn for the worse as Ben starts to have nightmares about a creepy, grinning chauffeur (Anthony James) he encountered at his mother’s funeral as a child, and his roughhousing with Davey in the pool takes on a dark turn as he feels compelled to drown the boy. Soon, the lively Aunt Elizabeth grows ill and dies while the house continues to become less decrepit. Ben ultimately tries to flee the grounds with Davey, but forces conspire to block his way, as his hallucinations of the evil chauffeur begin to appear even in his waking states. When the pool once again tries to drown Davey, Marian’s spell is briefly broken and she agrees to flee with the rest of the family, but the house will not let them go so easily.

A forgotten treasure, Burnt Offerings shares more than just its genre with Poltergeist: they also both share a PG rating. Although it’s still a bit of a shock to think about Spielberg’s haunted house movie being given such an age-inappropriate rating, it’s easier to see how the creepiness of Burnt Offerings slipped under the radar. There are no ghosts in the Allardyce house; the house itself seeks to feed upon the life force of its inhabitants, and very little explanation is given as to how or why the house came to be this way. In a more modern movie, the audience would likely be forced to deal with an unsatisfying origin story for the house’s hunger, but the lack of context actually adds to the horror factor; unanswered questions often leave a stronger impact than unfulfilling answers, and Offerings is a movie that understands that. The only thing that could conceivably be called a specter is the grinning chauffeur, who is effectively unsettling despite never performing any malicious actions. Who is he? Nobody, really, just a creepy guy that Ben encountered as a child and who left an impact on him, which is a nice touch. He’s not affiliated with the house except in the way that he relates to Ben’s unspooling sanity, and he actually stands out as one of the creepier boogeymen that have haunted horror films of the past, calling to mind the Thin Man from the Phantasm series.

Further, the way that the house uses its occupants to act out violence against each other is also quite scary. The tension builds slowly in this film, starting first with images of life and renewal (a dead potted plant suddenly has a green leaf, a burned-out light bulb begins to work) before more outrageous elements occur (gas leaks in locked rooms, dilapidated siding and roof tiles flying off of the house and being replaced by fresh fixtures). If the film had spent less time establishing the Rolfs as a happy family before tearing them apart, the escalation of terror wouldn’t work half as well as it does, and I can’t believe such a great film has faded into relative obscurity. It’s definitely worth tracking down and enjoying.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond