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Updated on March 3, 2003 to include screenshots. Note that the quality of these screenshots is, unfortunately, indicative of the poor AV quality of the DVD transfer.
This is a "companion" review to Flash's review from a couple of weeks ago. I say "companion" because, in general, I'm not going to give duplicate technical information about this title - that is all easily accessible in Flash's submission. The purpose of this review is to offer an alternative viewpoint from which to consider the merits of the movie.
Ironically, I never would have written this review at all were it not for the fact that I'd just purchased this movie (based on some Internet research) and then almost immediately after receiving it happened to see Flash's review. What's even more remarkable is that I'm not a regular ADT follower so the odds that I would have gone to this site on a day when his review was in the "recent" list were very small. After reading his review, which gave it a poor rating, I felt a little strange that I'd just bought the title - however I had not bought it for the reasons that his review criticised, so I shortly watched it with the hope that my "pre" judgement would yet be vindicated. (Thankfully, it was.)
When considering this movie within the context of normal adult movies, Flash's review is bang on. Don't consider buying it (or even renting it) - you'll be wasting your money. There are few sex scenes, and those that do exist generate little, if any, sexual arousal. It's simply not worth it.
However, when considering the movie from an artistic / film making standpoint, I think that the reverse is true. Anybody interested in the film genre (from an analytic perspective) would be doing themselves a disservice to miss out on this cult classic. In terms of the development of film in the adult industry, this movie should make any student's top 5 list. Even when viewed from a "mainstream" perspective, it makes very interesting study material.
Here I will list what happens in plot developing individual scenes as the movie progresses, and give my own subjective interpretation of what they mean. (Some scenes, or parts of scenes, may be left out as I don't feel it necessary to describe absolutely everything in order to get across the gist of the movie.) Note that this will not necessarily be an accurate interpretation (assuming that there is one). I've read several different interpretations already, so this is a movie that's wide open and which can easily mean one thing for one person, and something quite different for another. That, in itself, is almost completely unheard of in adult movies where the plot (if there is one) is almost always very easy to follow and almost never lends itself to interpretation of any kind at all.
The protagonist of the movie is Catherine, a stay at home mother living in an old mansion, born into money and upper class society. She has a teenage daughter and a husband, who seems to be some sort of businessman, although it's never made clear exactly what kind. (If anything, her husband married into the money, not the other way around.)
In the opening scene, Catherine is in a beauty salon having a face peel removed. Her stylist tells her she's ready for something new and unique, that he'll enhance her existing beauty and make her special. Interspersed with this, are "dream sequences" in which Catherine's on a forested path, at the bottom of a set of stairs, and calls after a receding figure who she calls "Papa" - but who disappears through a flowered archway. After the facial, her hair is done. There are other customers in the salon who are waiting for their turn and who are complaining. One of them mentions, in apparent shock, an almost see through outfit that Catherine wore to some social function. At the same time she expresses her disapproval, however, she licks her lips suggestively and crosses, then re-crosses, her legs.
Catherine is apparently about to go "on a trip" and is making herself look good in preparation. Before leaving, she mentions that she might return just prior to the trip for a "touch up" (she never does).
Already, there is a ton of imagery that's being used and everything is open to debate. The first frame of the movie shows nothing but a close-up of one of Catherine's eyes surrounded by the facial peel, the camera slowly pulls back to show the rest of her face, and the "classic" creepy horror music has already started. Immediately after that, the first fantasy image appears, then things go back to the salon briefly. In a span of a couple of minutes, things are already surreal and nothing really makes much sense.
Also, the movie's overall theme of sexual inhibition has been introduced. Although the salon patron speaks disapprovingly of Catherine's outfit at the social event, the thought of it obviously excites her sexually.
Catherine returns to her mansion, is greeted by her daughter, and is then informed by her husband that they have dinner guests. At dinner, her husband makes a point of questioning where it is that Catherine disappears to (whether he knows that she goes to the beauty parlour is unclear, although I suspect he does not, nor is he aware enough of her to notice, or at least to comment on, the difference in her appearance before and after). He then jokes about the fact that perhaps she sneaks off to see a secret lover. Again, it seems that this is behaviour frowned upon yet, at the same time, titillating to the husband and the guests. The husband then mentions that Catherine hasn't been quite the same since the shock of having her father die. The discussion upsets Catherine and she knocks over her wine glass, angering her husband. She claims that she's tired and needs to go to bed.
In bed that night, she kisses her husband very carefully on the cheek rather than on the lips but, contrarily, then reaches over to grab his hand and put in on her breast. Yet, reversing her position again, when he begins to rub her pussy, she stops him and says that she's not in the mood. He seems frustrated but not all that surprised, as if this behaviour has been going on for a while.
She gets out of bed after he's asleep and goes up to a room in the attic in which she starts brushing her hair in front of a standing mirror and telling herself how beautiful and desirable she is. Her nightgown slips off and she begins to masturbate. Clearly established now is the constant tension between repression of sexuality, and the desire for it.
A ghost-like hand appears from within the mirror and proceeds to take over from Catherine, masturbating her. In a truly bizarre photography sequence, we see POV the fingers going deeper and deeper inside her vagina. The scene alternates between this internal footage, and a close-up of the hand rubbing her pussy externally.
The scene abruptly cuts to show Catherine slumped on the chair on her own. It's not at all clear if the event was just a fantasy or an actual paranormal occurrence.
The following day Catherine is supposed to meet her husband for lunch. She goes about her daily routine and has a bath. (She masturbates with an enema.).
Elsewhere, the (rather disturbingly presented) maid and manservant are in a room together. She berates him, saying that she's seen him looking at Catherine and being excited, wanting her. She tells him that he shouldn't need anybody else other than her and that she'll take care of him. It becomes clear during the conversation that they are, in fact, brother and sister. Shortly thereafter, she proceeds to give him a blow job. During this scene, he appears not so much as if he's enjoying the attention but, rather, as if he's disturbed by it and would rather be involved in a more "normal" situation (such as with Catherine) instead of being with his own sister. But he seems unable to break away from her authority over him and lets her proceed anyway. This is slightly disturbing, a foreshadowing of the fantasy rape scene to come.
Catherine returns to the attic room where she confronts the mirror, telling herself that it's just a mirror and nothing to be afraid of. However, in a sequence reminiscent of the Green Goblin scene from the recent Spiderman movie, she begins to talk to herself. When shot from one angle she is her "innocent" self, from another she is her "evil / desirous" self trying to convince herself that she should appease her desires. She begins masturbating again and disrobes as this dialogue continues and she gets closer to the mirror. As she touches it she is taken through the mirror and transported into the same fantasy world seen at the beginning of the movie. (There is a brief intervening scene in which she has sex with another woman who might be symbolic of herself.) This time we see that beyond the flowered gate at the end of the forest path, is an estate and its grounds. Not the same estate as the one she lives on in "reality" but similar. What follows is an "Alice In Wonderland" tea party scene in which all of the characters in the hair salon reappear as their surreal counterparts, gathered around a table on which a woman (head down) kneels. They take turns fondling and having oral sex with her as the others comment ("Is she hot and wetty?" one asks in a strange sentence construction that mirrors the strange visual experience), and it gradually turns into an orgy. Catherine watches from a distance and finally walks over to the table to lift the head of the woman and find that it is herself. (At no point do the other characters see her or otherwise acknowledge her presence.) At the end she catches sight of her "father" again, but he disappears into a fountain before she can reach him. Afterwards, she is again slumped in the attic, and there is no real evidence, one way or the other, that anything has actually happened.
Catherine has missed her lunch appointment because of the interlude, and when she arrives where her husband is working (apparently at a construction site, with him holding what appears to be a set of blueprints - indicating he's some kind of manager or site designer - he's the one in the middle), it's hours too late. She tells him that there's something wrong, and he unconcernedly (except for having been put out over lunch) tells her that's why they're going to Europe.
Back at the house, Catherine is having a dress fitted by the maid and her daughter is also in the room. She mentions that she can't forget to get a small hand mirror and comb from the attic to take on the trip with her. Her daughter pipes in that she'll get them and runs out, ignoring Catherine's shout. Nothing happens to Jennifer in the attic, although we do see an image of Gillis leering at her from inside the mirror. When she returns, Catherine forbids her to ever go to the attic again then dismisses her and the maid.
She takes some pills (perhaps sleeping pills to calm herself) and looks at a picture of her father and her younger self. She hears voices, and goes up the stairs to her childhood bedroom. There she observes her younger self and her father. Her father is complementing his daughter's beauty. He wants to know if she's having any feelings and if she'd like to explore them. Young Catherine is confused, but eventually Gillis gets her to look at herself in the mirror, to disrobe and caress herself. Throughout this, Young Catherine appears hesitant and terrified. This is clearly something she does not want. Then Gillis gets her to lie down on the bed and masturbate, while he also masturbates above her. He then has her take his penis in her mouth until he cums. As with the rest of the scene, she is obviously not enjoying herself (you can't tell from the still image) and would rather be doing anything else. At the end she's almost in shock/tears, but it's nothing completely obvious. This is not a fantasy of hers or (if it is) not one she ever wanted to become real. It's one of the most disturbing and "real" depictions of rape (even if not in the classic penetrative sense) that I've ever seen. In fact, for being so emotional and understated, it's even more powerful than a "simple" rape scene might have been. Of all the scenes in the movie, this is the one that is remembered (and looked on in horror) the most.
The older Catherine watches this and, at the end, shudders in desire. When it's over Gillis turns to her and says, "This is what you'd wished to happen, isn't it Catherine?" At which point, Catherine berates herself, telling him that she's vile. He objects, saying, instead, that she's "exceptional". He invites her to come with him, to leave her dull existence behind and where she'll be exceptional for eternity. She finally says that he's not her father. He doesn't deny that he's not, but encourages her again to leave the fools, her "tedious husband" behind. She says that she's staying with her husband. He responds, "I thought you were exceptional Catherine. I thought you had longings," and disappears into the mirror. She hesitates, then asks if he's still there. His voice continues to talk to her, telling her that she's beautiful and, again, enticing her to go with him. He tells her to go to the mirror at 1:00 that night, to throw away her jewels (strangely, so that her husband won't have them) and to give the key to the attic to Jennifer who is also "exceptional", like her mother.
There are two things to note here. First of all, Gillis' statement about what Catherine witnessed being what she wished to happen is ambiguous. It may be that it was only what she had fantasized about happening when she was young - or it may be a kind of after-the-fact rationalization for what actually did happen between her and her father at a younger age. Was she the victim of incest, and it was this that coloured her sanity / summoned the Devil - or was she only suppressing that desire, with the same result? Secondly, it elevates the theme of sexual suppression from class based taboo to societally based taboo. The upper class doesn't feel it "proper" to talk about sex at all, but that's not the case with the lower-middle class. However, nobody feels it appropriate to talk about, or consider, incest. It's interesting that things should switch at this point, and it just makes the film's commentary all the more layered.
Catherine's husband arrives from work, and she runs downstairs to tell him that they have to leave on their trip to Europe immediately, rather than wait until the next day, because the house is "evil" and she can't stay the night. She goes into hysterics and her husband restrains her until a doctor can arrive to sedate her.
Later, when she's in bed, she has a scene with Jennifer that almost mirrors that between her younger self and her father - but only hints at it rather than actually doing anything. Catherine tells Jennifer that she is beautiful, that she should be having certain feelings at her age, etc. Catherine reaches up to caress her daughter and, for a moment, it seems as if it might continue as did the other scene but it doesn't. Instead, Catherine gives Jennifer the attic key, apologizing for her earlier attitude.
That night, Catherine goes to the attic where Gillis appears and classically "rapes" her. (It's not clear if it's entirely unwanted or not, although she does cry out in pain / shock / frustration). Her cries wake her husband who goes to the attic room to find out what's going on. When he finds the door locked, he shouts, asking if she's in there but, when there's no answer, he goes back downstairs again to search for her. (Why he doesn't pursue the source of the noise isn't explained.) They find her jewelry outside the house (thrown from the attic room window) but not her.
Catherine is taken through the mirror and finds herself in Hell - not at all the kind of place that Gillis had pretended her eternity to be. She is on a barren dune with other naked people having sex, some who are buried, others who have been eaten, and still others who bathe in their own excrement. At one point she even finds her "real" father castigating himself against the sand. She realises that she's been tricked.
Meanwhile, Jennifer has let herself into the attic room and sat down in front of the mirror. (There is no sign of Catherine being there physically.) Jennifer begins to talk to herself, telling herself how beautiful and desirable she is.
Catherine tries to escape...but I will not describe the actual resolution, except to say that it is slightly disappointing since it tips the, up to then, always (and well done) ambiguous scale of "fantasy vs. paranormal" more in one direction than the other. It is this lack of a clearly continued ambiguity that I find to be the only real flaw in an otherwise well crafted script.
The style of direction of this movie reminds me of Eastern European surrealist films - such as those by Bergman. (Another review at mondo digital, a mainstream cult film site, likens the direction to Fellini and others.) In fact, it might even have been appropriate if it had been filmed with European dialogue and presented with English subtitles.
There are several "loose ends", if there can be such a thing as a loose end in a movie like this. What happened to Catherine's mother? What was the real relationship between Catherine and her father? Is the attic room the "same" as young Catherine's bedroom? (They don't appear to be, since they are entered via different doors/hallways - yet the mirror exists in both, even after the Gillis "fantasy childhood rape" sequence is over and Catherine hears her husband arrive. Surely it can't be in two places at once, unless there are two identical mirrors...) Was what happened to Catherine real or just in her head and, if it was just in her head, what actually happened to her? (The movie stops before finally answering this.) What was the purpose / symbology of her throwing away her jewelry - especially since it was so quickly found during the search for Catherine anyway?
Another interesting consideration is the constant mention of the fact that everything is "all or nothing". Either it's all non-sexual, puritanical, or it's the most abiding of evil impulses holding sway. There doesn't appear to be any middle ground offered here. One wonders if this might be some kind of commentary on the absolutism of biblical and religious authority.
What I find interesting from Flash's review is he says, "This film should never have been made as an adult film as it ends up being completely unerotic." But it's not meant to be erotic. It's meant to be disturbing - and it certainly is. Further, if it weren't for the explicit sex, I don't see how it could be nearly as effective at its task. Ironically, he says that he was not aroused - simply disturbed. But that's what the writer/director wanted his reaction to be. While I'll agree that 99.99% of adult films are made to be erotic, I'll gladly point to this as a shining example of an adult film that bucks the trend and isn't meant to be stimulating at all - at least not sexually. (I can't say, definitively, if there's another adult movie out there that tries for something similar, but I would be very surprised to hear of one.)
Additionally, Flash says that he'd "always wanted to see a well done adult horror film, but this isn't it." Again, I have to disagree. I found myself more "horrified" by this movie than almost any other movie I've ever seen - adult or mainstream. At a visceral level, very few movies come close. I think that having more typical pornography in the context of a horror movie would only take away from the horror elements. While Dark Angels is definitely a good "adult horror", it's certainly not as "disturbing" as this movie was - because the sex scenes get you aroused, detracting from any specific growing sense of dread, and they are not melded enough to "justify" the arousal. (However, one exception that comes to mind is Philip Jose Farmer's pornographic Science Fiction novel "Image Of The Beast" that opens on a group of police officers who are watching a film of a fellow officer who's been kidnapped. A woman enters his room where he's tied, naked, to a chair and procedes to give him a blow job - something they gather he's used to by the time this scene is filmed, because of his apparently immediate sexual anticipation of the event. But, this time, at the end, after he's climaxed, rather than walking back out again, she, instead, bites his penis off. That could be considered legitimate adult horror that uses the initial excitement to build up to totally unexpected horror afterwards - but nothing like that is present in Dark Angels, perhaps because the killing after the sex is not so unexpected or "hurtful" in its specific maiming.) Anyway, maybe that's just my personal definition of horror. I want to be shocked and disturbed. Another such movie that combines these elements is David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly.
So, as far as I'm concerned, Through The Looking Glass is a unique and excellent piece of film work, one which any student of the genre would do well to take a look at. (With the caveat that if you're just looking for a "porn" you should go elsewhere, because it fails miserably on that score.) It's not even noteworthy solely as a piece of adult genre - any mainstream film student would also find many interesting things to think about here (so long as they realised that it did, in fact, contain adult movie elements). On skimming through scenes to clarify certain things while writing this review, I also realised that a 2nd viewing exposes many nuances that would have been missed the first time around. Its replay value is very good - if you're interested in thinking about it even more.