Saturday, December 19, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Reflecting Skin (1991)

Every now and then, a movie catches you by surprise...even as you're experiencing it.

Sometimes, a movie even seems to coalesce suddenly before your very eyes (and in your heart). And as it reaches that final, human crescendo, you're left unexpectedly breathless, overcome emotionally by the movie's impact.

Such a movie is Philip Ridley's bizarre 1991 effort, The Reflecting Skin. It's not an easy film to watch -- or even process -- and often it has been attacked for visual and thematic elements that some critics perceive as pretentious.

Writing in The Austin Chronicle, Steve Davis noted "The Reflecting Skin may befuddle you by what it's all about, but like a vivid dream, you'll have a difficult time forgetting it."

Time Out opined: "The complex, non-linear narrative is almost operatic in its visual and emotional excess, employing exaggerated camera angles, saturated colours and an ultra-loud soundtrack to create a heightened, sometimes dangerously portentous reality."

Most often, The Reflecting Skin is compared with David Lynch's films, and it has even been termed "Blue Velvet with Children" on occasion.

Many of the comparisons to Lynch's work are likely apt, but The Reflecting Skin is no mere imitator. It casts a singular, hypnotic spell. The film is legitimately haunting and affecting, and it's one of the few cinematic efforts I've seen (besides Menzies' Invaders from Mars [1953]) that visually captures the essence of childhood: the anticipation; the boredom; the excitement...the terror. Even the inescapable end of chidhood: the death of innocence.

Set in a lonely prairie town in post World War II Idaho, The Reflecting Skin tells the story of a boy named Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper). He's going to be nine years old soon, and life is...strange and mysterious.

For one thing, Seth's mother is brutal and draconian in her punishments (she force feeds Seth water until his bladder is literally ready to burst...).

For another thing, there's a strange but lovely new neighbor in town, the Widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). After reading a comic book called "Vampire Blood," Seth becomes convinced that she's actually a vampire. Dolphin even confides in the boy that she's two hundred years old.

But then a mysterious black cadillac begins haunting the wind-swept, endless country roads, and Seth's young friends begin to turn up dead...murdered.

Seth's father, a closeted, repressed gay who was once caught kissing a 17-year old man, is linked to the crimes because of his past history, branded a pedophile by the police, and soon commits suicide (by swallowing gasoline and immolating himself). Life goes on for Seth and the murders continue too, exonerating his father too late.

Seth's older brother, the handsome Cameron (Viggo Mortenson) returns home from the war, the Pacific Theater specifically, to care for the troubled Dove famly. The troubled veteran (who has witnessed atrocities...) promptly falls in love with the Widow Dolphin. Seth tries to warn his brother about her: she's a vampire and will kill him. Bafflingly, Cameron is already losing his hair, and his gums have begun to bleed...

Cameron can't be dissauded in his passion for Dolphin. He and the Widow Blue plan to escape the isolation of the prairie town, and Seth grows ever more desperate to stop their flight from his life. But then the black cadillac returns and claims one finatl victim.

This time, because of the identity of that corpse, Seth can't deny "reality." There are no easy vampire myths to hide behind. No more easily-explainable monsters. Alone, he runs into a golden wheat field and screams at the blue, wide-open sky. Innocence is hell. Innocence is dead.

This synopsis only covers a portion of Reflecting Skin's unusual tapestry. I didn't mention the aborted fetus that Seth discovers...and mistakes for an angel. I didn't mention the man in the eye patch. Or the fact that all the corpses "returned" by the mysterious black cadillac are strangely immaculate...ivory white, but with no sign of wounds.

On first glimpse, Seth seems to live a beautiful, repetitive life. He plays among golden wheat fields, draped in an American flag...spending his days with his friends. At one point, Ridley orchestrates a low-angle shot of Seth running towards the camera, through the fields; the sky unmoving and permanent behind him. The effect of the shot is that Seth appears to running as fast as he can, but going nowhere. It's a perfect metaphor for childhood as it is lived: it seems to last forever. All one giant game.

But this perfect childhood existence is punctured by inexplicable invasions from adulthoood. Seth's Mother and Father are awash in secrets; alienated and judgmental. And Dolphin Blue sits by herself in her lonely house surrounded by artifacts belonging to her dead husband...even strands of his hair. "Nothing but dreams and decay," she tells the boy with glazed indifference. Then, Seth and his friends catch Dolphin masturbating...another strange, inexplicable "adult" thing.

As the movie points out (particularly with images), Seth attempts to process the murders, the mayhem, the sorrow and secrets of the adultt universe in a way a child legitimately would. Dolphin affects him in a strange way -- disturbs his young mind -- and so he interprets the unfamiliar in a familiar way: as a vampire. When this creature of the night threatens to "steal" his brother, that interpretation becomes all the more powerful. Seth must save his brother from an imaginary monster; a phantasm of youth....a fairy tale. But a vampire, at least, is something that a child can comprehend. Vampires have rules; and there are ways to kill vampires. Real life isn't like that.

Then, in a scorching, heart-wrenching moment, Seth's world crumbles around him. He is forced, by circumstance and violence, to learn that there are no vampires. This discovery, leading up to the film's climax, totally annihilates what remains of his innocent perception. At the end, there are no monsters, just other people.

So -- cast in shadow and silhouette -- Seth weeps and screams at his involuntary initiation into adulthood. This valedictory shot -- a lonely boy crying heavenward in a pastoral setting -- has been charged to be cliched or pretentious by some, but that's a cynical and unsentimental reading of an artistic composition. The final shot is a primal scream against forcibly growing up. Seth's realization that he has been thrust into a world without monsters and without magic is utterly heart-rending, especially if you have ever observed up close the innocence and wonder of a trusting, believing child.

At one point in The Reflecting Skin, The Widow Blue tells Seth that childhood is a nightmare and that "innocence is hell." But she goes on to tell him that "it only gets worse." She enunciates the humiliations and degradations of growing old. Losing hair; losing memory; succumbing to arthritis, senile dementia, and more. She ends the litany with a warning: "Just pray you have someone to love you."

Seth doesn't understand her warning at the time. In the magical cocoon of childhood, he can invent friends (the fetus angel for instance...), rely on others to care for him (even his brittle mother), and hope for the future. But when he crosses the threshold into adulthood, however, he starts to understand the lonely, spiritually-wounded Cameron, and the need to connect to someone real; something tangible.

"Sometimes, terrible things happen quite naturally," The Reflecting Skin informs us, and Ridley's movie contrasts views of beautiful (if overwhelming...) nature with images of human ugliness. So much of what occurs in The Reflecting Skin happens between the lines. We ask questions but don't get answers. With his hair falling out and gums bleeding (and history in the Pacific...), was Cameron exposed to the atomic bomb and suffering from radiation sickness? If so, the movie concerns the death of innocence on a much grander, even global scale.

The Reflecting Skin
is a grim movie, one that charts the death of innocence as an inevitable but sad rite of passage. The movie is dark in a real way (not a faux, Hollywood way,) immensely powerful in emotional terms...and once you've seen it -- I promise you -- you'll never, ever forget it...


  1. This is the kind of movies the retro-reviews were made for. Thank you for reminding of how profoundly this flick blew my mind.

    I was working a teen gig at a Blockbuster video in rural Virginia and this thing was handed among the workers there as a sort of hazing ritual.

    Ah. Amazing.

  2. Anonymous6:47 PM

    Allo John,

    Have not written for a time, but have continued to faithfully read your blog and many of your publications; however, the mention of Philip Ridley's film necessitates a response. In addition to _The Reflecting Skin_ not being easy to watch, the film is not all that easy to find these days. Much like Tony William's _Next of Kin_, Richard Loncraine's _Full Circle_, and Donald Cammell's _White of the Eye_, it is one of those films that should be available on DVD/BluRay, but is not. At least not currently in print or in Region 1.
    Returning to the film, it is a beautifully made film, even powerful, and certainly no mainstream or otherwise conventional endeavor, but even so I have mixed feelings about it. When first watching it, I had the impression of outrageousness for its own sake: a midwestern gothic lensed as a Terrence Malick film, but with cruel and deliberately shocking elements. The frog scene in particular. Even the fetus/angel scenes -- though they have haunted me like few others.
    Anyway, I was not certain if you were aware of Ridley's second feature film _The Passion of Darkly Noon_. Another strange, unsettling, but powerful film that is difficult to come by. Overall, I was somewhat more comfortable with this film and very much recommend it to you. Apparently, there is a third Ridley feature due out in 2010 -- _Heartless_. Something to watch for.


    P.S. Whilst I know you have participated in the Cyber-Elite lists, I would be interested in seeing an entry on what were your personal twenty best horror films of the last twenty years (1990 to December 31st, 2009).

  3. CRwM: This film haunts me too -- a hazing ritual indeed! It's shattering.

    And Eric, you are right on both counts: The Reflecting Skin is difficult (but ultimately rewarding...) AND it should be released immediately on DVD/Blu Ray. I look forward to Ridley's next film (Heartless), and I definitely need to see The Passion of Darkly Noon.

    I don't mean it to be a cop-out regarding the twenty-best horror films of the last twenty years, but I keep putting it off because I haven't yet had the chance to see Paranormal Activity. We've had a bit of an ongoing medical emergency in my family since before Thanksgiving, so I missed the movie entirely, yet suspect it would probably make the list. I have it in my Netflix queue, and will probably table that list till I see it. I swear I'm not copping out...


  4. Anonymous11:06 PM

    Hey John!
    Also glad to see you reviewing this. Strangely this was also a big movie around the time I was working at a non-chain video store (where we also cycled it from person to person)!

    I haven't seen it since the initial release, but remember being blown away. To this day the ending (and the frog scene) have imprinted on my mind. Definitely not the feelgood movie of the summer : ) I agree this needs to find its way to Blu-ray immediately! You'd think the presence of Viggo Mortensen would quicken the pace.

    Best, Jim

  5. Funny that you mentioned David Lynch... A friend of mine and I went through a phase in 1992 where we tried to outdo each other by finding the most mind-blowing movies out there. He held the top spot for a while with Lynch's 'Naked Lunch', but I blew him out of the water with 'The Reflecting Skin'. Cinefantastique magazine had done a small write-up at the time, otherwise I never would have found it. The father's self immolation scene is not easily forgotten (I swore I could almost taste the gasoline). *Shudders* - Adam

    1. Anonymous7:41 PM

      Naked Lunch is not a David Lynch film.

  6. Jim and Adam: My response was very similar to yours. The Reflecting Skin is strong, unforgettable stuff. I wonder why no Blu-Ray release. Maybe with the impending release of Heartless, we'll see one in the works...


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