Mirrors have always been a mainstay of the horror genre. Iconic scares in The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf In London were generated from them. Korean horror Into The Mirror played with the idea of haunted mirrors, as did the American remake – but less said about that the better. More recently films such as Black Swan and Us have elicited scares from malevolent reflections. It’s a genre trope that never fails to send a chill down my spine. Canadian horror / thriller Look Away is based entirely around this gimmick, and while the premise is promising, the novelty wears thin quickly.
Maria (India Eisley) is a withdrawn, introverted teenager who is relentlessly bullied at school, with a shallow best friend who constantly puts her down. Her home life isn’t much better; her father (Jason Isaacs) is a callous, materialistic plastic surgeon and her depressed mother (Mira Sorvino) is deep in denial. At her wit’s end, Maria starts talking to herself in the mirror, and soon (of course!) her reflection is talking back. This more confident version of Maria encourages her to come out of her shell, and it’s not long before the sinister reflection is fully in control.
The most effective scenes in Look Away are those that illustrate Maria’s troubled school life. Director Asaf Bernstein captures Maria’s situation with dialogue and performances that feel true to life, and Eisley makes for a likeable protagonist. Her discomfort and awkwardness are tangible, and she crucially feels like a real person. The bullies are all suitably obnoxious, and the humiliation she suffers definitely owes a huge debt to Carrie. Unfortunately the film never gets as nasty, or as sinister as it needs to, and the really hissable characters don’t even get any real comeuppance.
While it has problems, Look Away is a beautifully shot film throughout. The numerous negative reflections are uncanny, and really imaginatively incorporated into the story. The passing shot of Maria’s reflection in her iPhone is an especially nice touch, and hints at the more subtle horror this could have been.
Eisley makes Maria a compelling protagonist, but she is a lot more convincing as the shy outcast than as the darker, more sinister version of herself. Her acting out too often feels forced, and is often quite cringeworthy. Both Isaacs and Sorvino are criminally wasted in their roles as Maria’s parents, written as one dimensional caricatures. Sorvino spends most of the film in a funk, which is very difficult to make interesting on screen, despite her best efforts. Meanwhile Isaacs is written as a fairy tale villain, criticizing his daughter’s appearance in a way that doesn’t sound like any real life person ever. He’s not a realistic character, but he’s also not given enough personality to make for a nuanced or memorable villain.
Having said this, there are a lot of disturbing moments that stick in the memory. The macabre opening sequence is vaguely reminiscent of Cronenberg body horror, showing two foetuses attacking each other in the womb. The first encounter Maria has with her reflection is also eerily effective, and genuinely creepy. All of these mirror scenes are creatively shot and look amazing, but it’s definitely a case of diminishing returns. With each repetition the effect is diluted, until it’s just not scary any more. The subplot about Maria’s childhood and the final coda are appropriately ambiguous and had the film developed this plotline more, and committed to the darker tone then it could have been a teen horror classic, rather than just appealing to the Twilight demographic.
An intriguing premise, beautiful crisp cinematography, a handful of eerie moments and an engaging central performance can’t quite save this lacklustre effort. It’s not scary or nasty enough for a horror, and it’s not compelling enough for a teen drama. Look Away languishes somewhere between the two, and ends up too tame, with cliched characters and some really on-the-nose dialogue.