I like to think that I am an easily-satisfied viewer of horror films. A concept that's creepy enough to make the hairs on your neck prickle a bit, good & moody cinematography, imaginative and well-executed gore effects, some iconic imagery, and ideally have the whole thing scary enough that I catch myself thinking about it as I drift to bed. In the grand scheme of things, that's not much, is it? Then why oh why does one horror picture after another fall so far beneath my modest hopes that this time, there's going to be something deliciously creepy on hand?

At least Mirrors has some top-shelf cinematography, thanks to Maxime Alexandre, collaborating with Alexandre Aja for the director's fourth movie in a row. There are some really fantastic night scenes, positively oozing malevolent darkness. It's common to see the absence of darkness used like a cudgel, but Alexandre is more precise, less hamfisted; the dark isn't frightening because we can't see what's happening, but because we can't quite see, and that makes all the difference. And I suppose it wouldn't do to forget about Joseph Nemec III, the veteran art director who created inside Bucharest's massive, unfinished Academy of Sciences building, commissioned by Nicolae Ceauşescu and abandoned after his death, one of the best horror film sets in a decade or better: a burnt-out New York department store, filled with blind corners, charred mannequins, and countless mirrors. Whatever things might happen there, and they are disappointingly - nay, insultingly - predictable, at least they happen in a truly uncanny setting.

That the film could have lived up to its appearance! But no, despite enough good shock scenes to fill a tremendously misleading trailer (I've been thinking for two months that this was going to unseat The Strangers as the scariest film of 2008), Mirrors is a cavalcade of poor execution. It doesn't take long to get to that point, either - it takes all of the first scene, in fact. A man we will later learn is named Gary (Josh Cole) is running from a mysterious something, into a locker room in the New York subway (are there locker rooms in the New York subway? That seems implausible to me). When he gets there to find a dead end, he turns in horror to find the doors of all the lockers swinging open of their own volition, sending back a chorus line of reflected Garys, all gaping out in fear (this is one of the film's absolute best shots, by the way). As Gary begs for his life, apologising for not cleaning the mirrors, his reflection in the large mirror on the wall stops following his movements. So far, so good; for the two minutes it took to get this far, I was watching exactly the moment I hoped to find. Then, the mirror cracks and a few shards fall, and as Real Gary picks one up, Mirror Gary does the same, cutting his own mirror throat; though Real Gary does no such thing, a nasty slice appears at the edge of his neck, spreading across as though by an invisible knife. It's an imaginative effect, and it looks more convincing than not, but it's hard to shake the sense that this is just gore for gore's sake. More importantly, whether imaginative or not, it looks kind of stupid. "Laugh out loud" stupid. I think it was the Kill Bill style geyser of blood that really pushed it to the back of beyond.

With that less-than-inspiring opening to guide the way, the film launches fully into its plot: alcoholic ex-cop Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) has just taken a job as the night watchman at the ruined Mayflower store on 6th Avenue, which was built in an old hospital that closed in 1952. Right there, anyone paying attention (and I guess you have to pay a little attention to hear the tossed-off line about the hospital) knows the basic outline of the rest of the film, so while we wait to find out what exactly happened to the person who was horribly tortured in the forgotten basement of that building, Ben wanders around looking befuddled by the weird things he's seeing in the store's mirrors, and the fact that the mirrored goings-on seem to follow him home. Meanwhile, his newfound paranoia is not helping matters with his estranged wife (Paula Patton), nor with his no-nonsense sister (Amy Smart), who dies in the film's other big gore sequence: her reflection pulls her lower jaw off. This latter scene is, if anything, even goofier than the first - the CGI really shows itself, and the fountains of blood that cover the entire bathroom make the effect farcical, not gross. For those of us who respect a good gore effect enough that this isn't just plain offensive, it's frankly embarrassing.

Mirrors is an allegedly unfaithful remake of a Korean film I haven't seen, Into the Mirror. I'm not sure whose fault it is therefore, that the story is such a wreck; if you're going to demand that the audience buys the very idea of haunted mirrors that kill you, it becomes necessary to make sure the gimmick is carried off consistently, and one of the chief problems with Mirrors in its current guise is that it never settles down on exactly what the mirror-ghosts are capable of. At any rate, by the time they pulled a little boy through a hardwood floor with an inch of water covering it, I'd given up caring. There's also the matter of a nonsensical and inexplicable twist ending.

Having not seen his notorious High Tension, I really would like to respect what Aja is trying to do. Really. R-rated horror is vastly superior to its bland PG-13 sibling, and I would love for there to be more of it in the world. But if all that the director wants to do is cram violent setpieces into tired, Americanised J-horror & K-horror plots, I can do without, thanks very much (even his remake of The Hills Have Eyes was a step above this; I wait with something like mortal dread his next project, Piranha 3D [edited to add: oops, turns out I was way the hell wrong on that one). The very idea of making a film about killer mirrors practically forces the final project to look like the very worst kind of studio horror picture, if you think about it: for what has been used to provide more cheap and unconvincing scares in horror films for teens than carefully composed shots of things appearing in mirrors? I suppose Offscreen Spring-Loaded Cats is in active development even as I write.

Remember in Duck Soup, when Harpo tries to pretend that he's Groucho's reflection? Now there was a movie that knew how to do a mirror scene. Would that there had been an homage, however brief, to that moment. It would have given some hint that Aja and company were aware of how tremendously goofy their movie was, maybe even given the hint that it was a deliberate self-parody. But no, this seems to be on the up-and-up, Grand Guignol jaw-ripping and all. At least it's not the worst horror movie of the year, just another tremendously disappointing one.