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Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be a ghost

A sadly little-seen and underappreciated gem in the ghost romance pantheon is Ghost Of the Mirror from director Sung Tsun-Shou. Significant for being the first major role for Brigitte Lin it is overlooked in favor of Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both of which tell the same story. Headed by Shih Chun from A Touch Of Zen (1961) and helmed by a director that specialized in drama and romance Ghost Of the Mirror is a historical curiosity that shouldn’t be the obscurity that it tends to be. Lin and Sung Tsun-Shou joined forces once again for the romance The Story Of Green House (1980). Ghost Of the Mirror is in dire need of a proper restoration. Hopefully some company will rise to the task of properly restoring, remastering and subtitling this forgotten piece of ghost romance history for rediscovery for the English-speaking world.

Brigitte Lin (right) and co-star Chiang Wei-Min (left)

Brigitte Lin is one of the great leading ladies of Hong Kong cinema, a veritable queen of the period costume and fantasy wuxia genre, and a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee. She was a veteran from over 100 movies. Of the four movies that Lin acted in in 1973-74 Ghost Of the Mirror was the most significant for being her first major role. Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance and Ghost Of the Mirror was her earliest period costume wuxia of note. Lin is often remembered for her cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and her celebrated reinvention under Tsui Hark in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). Brigitte Lin is an actress from the non-verbal school of acting who conveys more with just her eyes and face than most other actors do with the combination dialog and gestures.

Ghost Of the Mirror, for all intents and purposes, is a loose adaptation of Pu-Sing Ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio which had been adapted earlier with Shaw Bros The Enchanting Shadow (1960) with Chao Lei and Betty Loh Tih and a decade later with Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong. Chang Yung-Hsiang was a Taiwanese screenwriter that specialized in romance. While all the characters and locations have different names it’s rather evident that Ghost Of the Mirror is a direct imitation of Pu-Sing Ling’s most famous work without infringing upon the copyright. It too follows a righteous scholar in a remote location who falls for the charms of a doomed maiden, ensnared by a malignant force he can’t possibly begin to comprehend. It was probably down to a lack of resources that Ghost Of the Mirror wasn’t able to secure the licensing rights for their adaptation of the work. The score too seems randomly put together from stock library music as well as cues from Akira Ikufube's theme from Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) and the various darker, slightly spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ from 1971’s “Meddle”.

An unnamed Buddhist scholar who everybody refers to as Young Noble (Shih Chun) is instructed by his ailing mother (Chang Ping-Yu) to copy a number of sacred Sutra a hundred times to appease the gods to improve her failing health. To that end Young Noble agrees to relocate to remote, quiet surroundings, abstaining from consuming meat and liquor, bathing regularly, and avoiding the company of women. He sends his young servant Ching (Chiang Wei-Min) to scout a possible location and soon the moving is underway. Ching believes the well on the property is haunted but Young Noble discounts it as mere childish superstition. As he prepares himself to start copying the Sutras he soon feels a presence inexplicable. He soon discovers that the house is haunted by Su-Su (Brigitte Lin, as Pai Yin), the ghost of a girl drowned in the well who can only come out at night and is forced to kill people in servitude to the Dragon. Ching eventually finds a mirror in the well and when Young Noble sends him away after his find the mirror turns out to contain the essence of a second ghost, Yuenyi (or Yao Ying) who looks exactly like Su-Su but has a completely different personality. Under the influence of her malefic enslaver Yuenyi attempts to strangle Young Noble with her sari but she resists the Dragon’s ectoplasmatic force as she deems him too righteous to kill.

As a lifedebt of sorts for resisting the Dragon’s power Yuenyi suggests to be his servant for the duration of his assigned transcription task. Enamored of both the reserved Su-Su and the more enterprising Yuenyi, Young Noble explores the caves beneath the well and finds a bronze mirror in a box. Now that the mirror is out in the open it allows Su-Su and Yuenyi to keep him company in daytime as well. As time elapses Su-Su and Yuenyi start to merge into one. At this point Young Noble’s mother pays her dutiful son an unexpected visit at the isolated mansion and is initially disappointed to find him in the presence of a woman, something which he agreed to abstain from. Su-Su/Yuenyi explains that her intentions are nothing but honorable, and the old matriarch allows the two of them to be together, knowing full well that Su-Su/Yuenyi is a ghost. On the way back to the abandoned mansion the two run into a devilish old lady who turns out to be a manifestation of the Dragon. Young Noble continues with the completion of his transcriptions and the two decide to shield the house with Sutras he has already finished as a measure against attacks from the Dragon. In the night the Dragon attacks the mansion to reclaim his prized possession, Su-Su/Yuenyi. While he’s unable to save Su-Su/Yuenyi from certain death, Young Noble’s righteousness is powerful enough to exile the Dragon from the realm of the living, at least for the time being.

The on-screen romance between Shih Chun and Brigitte Lin remains quite chaste at all times. The contrasting personalities of Su-Su and Yuenyi allow Lin to showcase her versatility as an actress – and even this early on it’s clear that she was destined for superstardom given the proper means and vehicle. Su-Su is very reserved, aloof and content in her subservience while Yuenyi possesses a greater joie de vivre. She loves to dance, wears colorful veils and has an overall more positive frame of mind. Obviously the victim of a great tragedy the heart of Su-Su/Yuenyi is restored when she makes her acquaintance with Young Noble. Lin’s breakthrough would come with Tsui Hark’s mythological spectacle Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). In some two decades hence from Ghost Of the Mirror – and after some considerable career peaks in between – Lin would find herself on the lower end of the spectrum once again with the disastrous and widely derided Louis Cha adaptation Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994).

Ghost Of the Mirror has been largely eclipsed by the two adaptations before and after it. Shaw Bros’ The Enchanting Shadow (1960) and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), both told of a doomed and tragic romance between a Buddhist scholar and a ghostly maiden, and did so with far higher production values and to much greater effect. In its defense it isn’t as if Brigitte Lin wasn’t a suitable alternative to Betty Loh Tih and Joey Wong. Screenwriter Chang Yung-Hsiang certainly hits all the right notes in the story and the doomed romance between the two lovers is well-developed enough to make the ending fittingly tragic. The production is hampered by its obvious lack of resources but thankfully director Sung Tsun-Shou is able to do a lot with very little. The special effects-heavy finale is where Ghost Of the Mirror betrays its low-budget nature as much of it is puppetry and miniatures with sometimes very visible strings. Budgetary limitations notwithstanding Ghost Of the Mirror is a charming little movie that has been relegated to obscurity despite Brigitte Lin’s later international stardom.

    It might not have the rustic charm of The Enchanting Shadow (1960) or the mad frenetic energy, the slapstick comedy and the oh so bittersweet romance of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) yet Ghost Of the Mirror is perfectly capable of holding its own. There are obviously superior, and better realized, examples of the form but Ghost Of the Mirror has much of the same creaky, rickety charm as those poorly funded Mediterranean gothic horror genre pieces that arrived in the wake of American Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Ghost Of the Mirror draws from a different literary source and – mythology, but its objectives are largely the same. That Ghost Of the Mirror is overlooked in favor of its better known brethren is understandable. As serviceable and occassionally atmospheric as it it, it isn’t some lost classic or overlooked gem. As a historic curiosity it is interesting purely for being Brigitte Lin’s first major role. Other than that it’s a by-the-book Chinese ghost story that abstains from the overt craziness that came to define the post-A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) exercises in the genre. A little goes a long way and a little of Brigitte Lin in her earliest role of note is so much more than just that.

Plot: a school girl and her friends disturb the spirits of the dead

Verónica is last year's surprise horror hit from Spain and touted as Netflix's 'scariest movie ever' in mainstream press and social media alike, deserved or not. Released domestically as La Posesión de Verónica, but abbreviated to Verónica for international release, it was released on Netflix on February 26 with little to no promotion to speak of. No other movie in recent memory was received to such widespread response – and the general hysteria surrounding Verónica will remind the more cynical among us of two movies from the mid-to-late 90s called The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Ringu (1998) that got similar reception. Verónica was nominated for 7 awards during the 2018 Goyas and screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Not bad for an rather uneventful little genre exercise that would’ve certainly languished in obscurity otherwise. Thankfully it is partially redeemed itself by introducing a young new talent by the name of Sandra Escacena to the world.

Spain has a long and rich history in horror and terror cinema that dates all the way back to the mid-to-late sixties. Directors as Paul Naschy, Jesús Franco, Amando de Ossorio, Enrique López Eguiluz, Javier Aguirre, Miguel Iglesias, and León Klimovsky reigned supreme during the exuberant seventies and remained active when interest in the genre waned in the eighties. As in the prior decades Spanish horror once again underwent a transformation and greeted the nineties in a new form. Spanish horror always took after its American inspirations but it wasn’t until the nineties that Spanish directors were really able to match their American peers. Álex de la Iglesia shot the genre back to relevance with his second directorial feature as did Alejandro Amenábar with his debut thriller Tesis (1996) a year later. Amenábar briefly flirted with Hollywood with the supernatural thriller The Others (2001) but returned to his native Spain after his Abre los Ojos (1997) was remade by Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky (2001). Following soon in the footsteps of de la Iglesia and Amenábar were directors/screenwriters like one Jaume Balagueró.

The director of Verónica is Paco Plaza - a protégé of that other darling of Spanish horror cinema, Jaume Balagueró – with whom he co-directed [Rec] (2007) and its sequels. Balagueró was in no small part responsible for the resurgence of Spanish horror in the barren decade that was the nineties. While it was Álex de la Iglesia and his The Day Of the Beast (1995) that truly heralded a new age for Spanish terror, Balagueró made a name for himself with the supernatural thrillers The Nameless (1999) and Darkness (2002). That Plaza would eventually venture out on his own was expected – and Verónica is exactly the kind of horror feature he was destined to write/direct. Plaza knows his horror and Verónica borrows liberally from all the obvious sources. It’s well-made and probably better written than it has any reason to be, even if it tends to be on the anemic side in terms of actual horror and shocks.

Verónica (Sandra Escacena) is a 15-year-old adolescent left to care for her younger siblings, Lucía (Bruna González), Irene (Claudia Placer) and Antoñito (Iván Chavero) as her mother Ana (Ana Torrent) works late shifts in the local bar-restaurante to make ends meet. During a lesson about the upcoming solar eclipse Verónica and her friends Rosa (Ángela Fabián) and Diana (Carla Campra) decide to hold a séance. As the rest of the school is watching the eclipse outside the three girls convene at the basement to conduct their séance. Diana wants to contact the spirit of her boyfriend who died in a motorcycle accident and Verónica wants to communicate with her late father. The glass on the Ouija board immediately responds to the girls’ touch becoming too hot to touch while Verónica remains impervious to the heat. As the eclipse is complete the glass shatters leading Verónica to spill blood on the Ouija board which tears itself in half. The next moment the girls find Verónica lying unresponsive, until she suddenly lets out a scream and passes out as the lights start to flicker. When she opens her eyes she’s in the nurse’s office who shrugs off Verónica’s condition as a mere iron deficiency. At home paranormal occurences start to happen around her: claw and bite marks appear on her body, strange noises emit from empty rooms, objects move by themselves and Verónica starts to experience hallucinations, and the ghost of her late father starts appearing to her.

In school Rosa and Diana start avoiding her and in the basement Verónica runs into the ghoulish Hermana Muerte (Consuelo Trujillo) in whom she confides in about the séance she conducted. Hermana Muerte scolds Verónica for dabbling with something she can’t possibly begin to understand. The woman of God has had her own brush with the supernatural and advises the girl to close whatever gate she opened and to protect her siblings from whichever horror she unwillingly summoned. In the following days the hauntings continue as Verónica fights tooth and nail in warding off whatever malign entity she summoned from the shadows. She learned from Hermana Muerte that it is important to say properly goodbye to whatever she summoned and, in her darkest hour, Verónica and her sisters try to appease the spirits by performing a ritual. The situation at home deteriorates to such a degree that the kids’ mother Ana even rushes back to the house, and after an emergency call the police show up. Detective Samuel Romero (Chema Adeva) is assigned the case and when he reaches the Gomez homestead he finds a picture of Verónica, soon becoming too hot to touch, and the girl herself expired from what appears to be mortal fright. The case, of course, leaves the police puzzled.

Doe-eyed Sandra Escacena is the biggest surprise in Verónica. With talent to spare she embodies the titular character with every fibre of her being. Escacena has the same disarming innocuous demeanor as Tina Sáinz in 1971 and that sizzling Mediterranean sense of sensuality that legendary Spanish cult actress Soledad Miranda (or, more recently, Paz Vega) had. Escacena might very well become the next Spanish superstar if her performance here is anything to go by. Hopefully she'll be able to choose the right roles and projects in the wake of Verónica's overnight success. The sparse few scenes she shares with Ana Torrent, the star of Alejandro Amenábar’s chilling Tesis (1996) 20 years before and the prerequisite veteran of the cast, are among the strongest moments Verónica has to offer. The other child actors acquit themselves admirably considering there isn’t much meat to any of their parts and they exist largely to amplify Escacena’s role. Ángela Fabián and Carla Campra fill out their supporting parts as Verónica’s school buddies well enough but that’s the extent of their importance. Here’s hoping that Sandra Escacena turns into the next Cristina Galbó, Penélope Cruz or Ivana Baquera.

What would Spanish horror be without its sturdy reliance on Judeo-Christian symbolism and iconography? Nothing and Verónica is no different in that respect. Verónica is a Catholic schoolgirl and the nuns that run the school conform to the usual clichés. There are a multitude of crucifixes (brandished either by the nuns or by Verónica) and at one point a halo is projected onto Verónica. Hermana Muerte is probably the single best character next to Verónica herself and the ominous warnings she utters make the tension tangible. Hermana Muerte is as ghoulish, sickly and ashen as the apparitions and shadows that haunt Verónica and her siblings. Hermana Muerte’s cynical remarks help drive the point home that secularism will be punished. Dabbling in the occult for selfish reasons will get you killed. Of course Verónica is a completely different kind of possession movie than the Spanish productions that flooded the market in the wake of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Verónica draws from a whole different set of influences but it preys on the same Judeo-Christian fears and superstitions like its ancient predecessors in decades past. Verónica is clearly for the Hong Kong ghost crowds.

One of the greatest strengths of Verónica is that it aims to be more than just a horror movie. It uses the trappings and conventions of the demon possession and haunted house subgenres to tell a completely separate and more dramatic tale. Underneath Verónica is about a current-day dysfunctional family unit wherein a hard-working mother and her children mourn the loss of their father and come together through hardship. It’s a coming-of-age story wherein Verónica’s first period coincides with the height of the hauntings and where demonic possession is a thinly-veiled metaphor for puberty. Verónica liberally borrows from Poltergeist (1982), The Craft (1996), Ringu (1998), The Eye (2002), Dark Water (2002) and Paranormal Activity (2007) among others. The framing device that bookends the main portion of the story merely exist to tie it to a story torn straight from the headlines. The basis for the screenplay was the ‘Vallecas case’ where teen Estefania Gutierrez Lazari died a ‘sudden and suspicious death’ in the Gregorio Maranon Hospital in August 1991, two months after allegedly having had a brush with the supernatural. The result of having a séance with friends interrupted by a woman of the cloth who broke the ouija board during the summoning. It’s the oldest marketing trick in the book, but one that admittedly still works. Verónica has atmosphere in spades, but its scares come across as telegraphed and obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with the horror genre. That doesn’t make it any less effective – and like a seasoned pro Sandra Escacena owns every scene she’s in.

It stands to reason that Verónica is the single most talked about Spanish horror movie as of right now. Its cultural importance is as significant as Álex de la Iglesia and his The Day Of the Beast (1995). Whether or not its reputation as Netflix's 'scariest movie ever' is deserved is another matter entirely. Verónica is an effective but hardly riveting example of the form. As a genre piece it pushes all the right buttons and it certainly is atmospheric enough considering its low-key locales, but that alone is hardly worth more than a passing viewing. For novice viewers there’s a good chance that Verónica indeed will be the most scariest thing they’ve ever laid eyes upon. More experienced viewers will find a beautifully lensed and well-written little genre exercise to sink their teeth into. Verónica is only a horror movie if that’s all you expect it to be. It works by the genre’s conventions but at heart it’s actually a heartwrenching drama. Therein lies the strength of Paco Plaza’s directorial debut feature. Like the ghosts it portrays Verónica becomes what you want it to be.