A few months after I was born in 1979, my dad, Bernard, and my uncle Jim made a short horror film called The Phantom in the Mirror, which they shot on Super 8 and edited in camera as they went along. The film spins a familiar yarn, about a haunted mirror which consumes the soul of anyone who looks into it. It was an idea that had been ricocheting around uncle Jim’s head for a while, ever since he’d chanced upon a discarded mirror at work.

Uncle Jim’s hand painted title card for ‘The Phantom in the Mirror’ (1979)

My dad passed away in May this year, aged 59. Naturally, when writing his eulogy, I recalled many of his creative endeavours, including this film, which leapt back into my conscious, like a rabid facehugger from the Alien films. I hadn’t seen it for over twenty years, assuming it had perished in the foamy tide of time. Nevertheless, his passing inspired an archaeological spirit in me with which I set in motion a quest to find the original reels, which uncle Jim managed to track down via several old friends and acquaintances. We also found a dusty old cup with the initials “J.C.” inscribed on it but we chucked that tacky shit in the bin.

Speaking of bins, after moving to Coventry from Glasgow in 1970, dad and uncle Jim were both employed as dustmen (calling themselves garbologists), and were often amazed at what some people considered to be rubbish. Interestingly, as men employed to routinely dispose of trash and junk, they placed more emphasis on preservation than destruction. They recognised the value and heritage in those banished possessions, which were usually propped up against soggy black bin bags or left in cardboard boxes. Many times, they would elect to adopt the items rather than sling them into the back of the wagon to be crushed.

This is how uncle Jim had acquired the mirror, while dad acquired pretty much everything else. He was a feverish antiquarian, bringing home all kinds of treasures – comic books, annuals, toy cars, paintings, ornaments, samurai swords and basically any other blood-stained paraphernalia that probably should have been wrapped in plastic bags and tagged as evidence. One day, when I was about eight years old, he brought home a large wooden statue of an aboriginal tribesman. It was almost as tall as I was. Poised with readiness, it clutched a shield and a spear and with its chiselled grimace and engraved, pitiless eyes, it was pretty spooky to say the least. Naturally, my dad duly appointed it as guardian of the house, informing my little sisters and I that it would also report to him any mischief from us, making us instantly wary of it. The statue deeply unnerved my mum too, who already had to contend with various voodoo masks dotted around the kitchen. She was convinced they were all cursed, the statue especially, ever since she saw Creep Show 2, in which a native American statue called ‘Old Chief Wood’nhead’ comes to life and goes on a killing spree. Always canny, my dad soon modified the statue’s purpose from guardian of the house to guardian of his chair…

Meanwhile, over at uncle Jim’s house, hung the ornate mirror, which cast a similarly ghoulish presence over his home, particularly since its starring role in The Phantom in the Mirror.

It was round about the same time dad brought home the statue that he decided he would show me his film, despite my mum’s heeding that it might be too scary for me. To be honest, it was a little late in the day to be heeding, since dad had already let me watch Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Cronenberg’s The Fly and quite possibly the scariest of them all, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Naturally then, dad figured I’d be absolutely fine with his low budget schlocker. So we made ourselves comfy, my dad in his chair and me on the floor beside his feet, as was my custom for watching the telly back then.

It opens, silently – nothing but the whir of the projector at least, with uncle Jim discovering the mirror, discarded against a brick wall in the jetty behind his house. He takes it inside, dusts it off and hangs it on the wall. As he does this, his reflection momentarily becomes a hooded skull, soaked in blood, which although startles him a little, he quickly dismisses the vision as the cause of an overdue catnap, as anyone would do, right? I see a hooded blooded skull all the time when I’m tired.

It surely isn’t though, as in that moment, the mirror had actually elected uncle Jim as the witless vessel of which it will soon infuse all of its evil, preying on him during his nap and eventually using him to manifest into the hooded wraith itself, which stalks around the house menacingly, like some tubby Nosferatu. It doesn’t get past my dad though, bread-slicer-turned-hero, who stabs the ghoul in the back with a huge psycho-knife, only to witness it transform back into uncle Jim moments later. Then the projector falls silent.

Quite frankly, my mum should have heeded more. I was horrified. I was thoroughly chilled for reasons beyond my comprehension at the time. Although I was old enough to accept it was make-belief, I was young and impressionable enough to be disturbed by it forever.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was at Coventry university, writing a film review for The Source magazine, that I was able to begin articulating and understanding The Phantom in the Mirror‘s impact on me. I was reviewing the American remake of The Ring, which as I’m sure you remember, centres around a cursed video tape. The footage on that tape evoked a sense of dread I had not felt since I watched The Phantom in the Mirror all those years ago. As I tried to explain why I found The Ring to be particularly ghoulish, I was actually able to decipher the same of The Phantom in the Mirror. I even made a reference to my dad’s film in the review. What struck me the most at the time (and to this day, in fact) was the silence. It’s difficult to tell if the sound of the projector played a part in the experience, a sound more associated with weepy nostalgia. I suspect it did. Over something like this, the sound of the projector gave the footage a kind of unrelenting verisimilitude. But mostly, I’m talking about the lack of sound generally and how it amplified all of my other senses – my sense of observation, my sense of anticipation, my sense of dread. Not to mention how it manipulated my perception of the people in the film. People I knew very well. I couldn’t understand how the usually playful uncle Jim was both vulnerable and menacing, both villain and victim. I guess I didn’t have the distance that a general audience would have had. More than anything I had ever seen at the time, it demanded all of my courage and curiosity and in writing that review, I discovered that The Phantom in the Mirror‘s most accomplished trick was its visual storytelling and creation of atmosphere.

Watching it today, as a film-maker myself, as co-conspirator you could say, some twenty two years since I last saw it (and thirty years since it was made), I can clearly see it is an amateur horror film, brazenly baring the influence of classic horrors such as Nosferatu and perhaps Ealing’s compendium feature, Dead of Night. I can totally see the strings now. I can see that the Phantom’s cloak is really just a fucking beach towel and I can see that the skull is just a cheap plastic Halloween mask drizzled in ketchup. Since it was shot in sequence, I now see that the timing is slightly off too (although in-camera edits have since become a highly regarded method in this age of digital technology, with many boutique film festivals dedicated to the discipline). Also, its silence heralds the kind of valiant, ham-fisted acting that would make even Harold Lloyd blush. Dad and uncle Jim even had the audacity to do a real time slow motion sequence for their finale and on top of that, there’s a slight post-modernist ending, in which the camera pans across the room and zooms in on the mirror which has “The End” scrawled on it. But it’s this kind of ambitious, home-made ingenuity and dynamism that makes The Phantom in the Mirror so adorable. The end credits crawl is possibly cutest of all – hand written on a roll of paper which is slowly hoisted up in front of the camera.

Watching it recently, I was reminded that my dad directed it, which filled me with a tremendous sense of accession, I have to say. I even get my first ever credit, as “Baby Brian Harley Jr” which not only makes me feel deeply cherished but part of the very fabric of this short film. I was there, man…

…probably snoozing in some little baskest under the dining table, but still.

I can’t say for sure that The Phantom in the Mirror is the sole inspiration for my own interest in film-making but the odds are pretty high that it had some subliminal influence on me and that fills me with great pride.

My dad may be gone now and amongst his legacy is this film, which you’re welcome to watch here. His policy in life was to behold the value in everything and to preserve it and so that’s exactly what I’m doing with his little film, of which I owe a great deal of reverence.

I miss you, pop. Just like your film, I will always savour those spontaneous, enchanted moments when I am reminded of you.

Time for a nap…

Watch the Phantom in the Mirror (1979)