Released in the summer of 1990, MIRROR MIRROR was one of a flood of lower-budget titles released during the home video boom, their super limited theatrical runs merely a formality to perhaps secure a slightly better shelf space or a late-night cable syndication deal. With a sweet lenticular VHS box cover and more than a passing structural resemblance to some previous horror film hits, MIRROR MIRROR was the sort of mid-grade spooky stuff that sleepovers and sibling dares are made of.
Megan Cordon (the wonderfully named Rainbow Harvest) and her mother (genre favorite Karen Black) move from L.A. to an unspecified small town, to attempt to heal after the death of Megan’s father. Megan’s shyness and Goth fashion sense soon make her a high school pariah, with only the kindly Nikki (Kristin Dattilo) willing to give her the time of the day. When the antique mirror in her new bedroom makes Megan manifest mysterious powers, her tormentors begin dying in grisly ways.
The film, on its face, is a cut-rate Carrie. What elevates MIRROR MIRROR above similar fare is both a more accomplished than average cast for the budget and the heavily female-led nature of the production. Not only directed by a woman (Marina Sargenti), the majority of the screenwriting team and the crew were also female. While not overtly feminist, the movie deviates from common genre fare conventions in ways that still feel refreshing.
Megan and Nikki are allowed to genuinely be friends, with a relationship that develops in a way that feels natural. There’s no undercurrent of ulterior motive or competition between them. Even their mutual dislike of bitchy queen bee Charleen (Charlie Spradling) has more to do with her cruelty and cutthroat tactics in the class election than the typical teen film topics of clothes or boys.
In an unusual reversal, the boys in the film are reduced to second bananas, accessories to the girls’ passions and ambitions. By the time a fully demonic mirror possessed Megan gets around to trying to seduce Charleen’s boyfriend, it seems motivated more by her desire to test her newfound sexual agency than anything else. When she finds him lacking, she disposes of him like a broken toy, commanding the demon to clean up the mess, confident in her supernatural power to claim another conquest.
This is not to say the film entirely transcends its era, genre tropes or its price point. While Marina Sargenti does her best to lend some style and atmosphere with a moody blue color palette and some inventively gory kills, the mirror’s demon is rarely seen, and it keeps the film from reaching its’ full scare potential. In fact, when Megan gives herself over to the dark power the mirror offers, the blood dripping, glass licking make out (as a rubber monster hand reaches out to caress her) that seals the deal almost devolves into camp.
As is typical of any teen media of the time, all of the adults are either oblivious (Mrs. Gordon) or completely ineffectual (True Blood‘s William Sanderson as teacher Mr. Veze). This as always, leaves the kids plenty of time for plot mandated bullying, humor that ages like cheese, and a gym class that spends a suspicious amount of time swimming in tight maillots.
A very familiar-looking long shot locker room scene ends with one of the characters being scalded to death by the shower steam. Though not played purely for titillation, the scene drags on for quite a while, the nudity securing the R rating that the films’ lack of effects budget couldn’t otherwise promise. Horror movies lose their frisson of the forbidden (and often a chunk of their profits) at an almost all audiences PG-13.
What’s particularly interesting upon rewatch, is that MIRROR MIRROR is fully aware of its own shortcomings. It uses references and callbacks to make the viewer’s own genre knowledge fill in the gaps left by a small budget and a lack of room for undue exposition in the script. Megan’s Boy George goes Goth looks are a clear callback to Beetlejuice‘s displaced Lydia, and Rainbow Harvest bears more than a passing resemblance to Winona Ryder.
Karen Black’s pastel day dresses and assortment of blonde coifs as Mrs. Gordon recall the look of her equally distracted matriarch in 1976’s Burnt Offerings, rather than a single mom of the budding ’90s. Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters) has a secondary part as the auctioneer that helped sell the Gordons their new home, becoming the voice of reason who tries to stop the demon, and a cautionary tale for her efforts. Because we’ve seen Zelda Rubenstein play this same essential archetype in countless films, De Carlo popping in and out of the film makes contextual sense.
The plot framework is pure Carrie, as is the locker room scene. When Megan wishes her deceased dad was there with her, the demonic mirror granting her wish by sending a zombie version shambling toward her bed it’s pure Tales From The Crypt territory. The spate of references is an effective cost-cutting measure, as the audience understands plenty while being shown less.
While the meta trend in horror would only truly take flight after 1996’s Scream became a sensation, this unassuming bargain basement film contains some early examples of that wink and a nudge self-awareness. When Nikki’s boyfriend Ron finds Megan’s fears about the mirror’s effects unreasonable, he dismisses it as “…..she’s crazy. She thinks she’s the lead in a horror movie!”. When Charleen and her friends are preparing another cruel prank to play on Megan the only objector’s concerns are brushed off with “Don’t worry. It’s just a joke…it’s not like we’re gonna cover her in pigs’ blood or anything.” These moments are charmingly clever, definitely helping this film’s more derivative aspects go down smooth.
MIRROR MIRROR is a perfect time capsule of a transitional moment in horror. Slasher fodder teen tropes of the 80s were on the wane, but the 90s youth had yet to find their disaffected, sardonic footing. The glut of content needed to fill video stores gave a lot of films and filmmakers a chance they otherwise would not have received. Somewhere along the way to all of those slumber parties, MIRROR MIRROR was successful enough to spawn 3 additional direct to video sequels. Two of the sequels were also directed by women. While too restrained to truly be called a classic, this nostalgic bit of B cinema kicked off a female-led horror franchise. Considering how rare of a feat that still is 30 years later, MIRROR MIRROR certainly deserves a second look.