Americana twisted into a dark and beautiful fantasy.
Chances are, you have never seen The Reflecting Skin. In fact, you’ve probably never even heard of The Reflecting Skin. Until Mark Kermode celebrated the release of the film on Blu-ray last year I had never heard of this film and its little wonder. Despite a rave reception at annual, snob-fest, Cannes in 1990 – which despite its problems still judges its films well- the cinematic release in 1991 was incredibly limited. For the next near decade-and-a-half this Anglo-Canadian production was almost impossible to find anywhere.
Then, in 2015, Soda Pictures (Only Lovers Left Alive) got hold of the print, remastered it and restored it to its full visual glory and gave to us in a general DVD and Blu-ray release. Oh and what a wondrous thing this it is. The film looks like an idea concocted by Stephen King, directed by David Lynch – although Twin Peaks wasn’t released until after The Reflecting Skin was finished – with Terrance Malik doing cinematography. The nightmarish twisting of Americana, the beautiful rural scenery that resembles the half-remembered dream of a Midwest farmer long since removed into the big city dropping acid in a rundown apartment block.
However, the film is the brainchild of British writer-director and artist, Philip Ridley. In Ridley’s own words, things start out “looking like Little House on the Prairie but, it ain’t.” You’re not wrong there Philip; this resembles A Little House on the Prairie only if Laura Wilder took bathsalts washed down with bourbon. A beautiful nightmare is the perfect way to describe this stunning and unusual piece of horror storytelling.
The Reflecting Skin’s plot revolves around a young boy Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) who suspects neighbor Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) of being a vampire and who he harasses relentlessly from the word go. His paranoia increases with the death of a friend and the mysterious ailment affecting his traumatized soldier brother Cameron (a young Viggo Mortenson). On the surface the film seems like a bizarre re-imagining of the idealized rural Americana. The beautiful golden cornfields, which look so striking because Ridley painted them yellow, becoming the backdrop for a series of child murders linked with a group of young men driving around in a monstrous and menacing black Cadillac. Except the film isn’t about America at all. Its about nightmares and the dark side of childhood.
As the wonderful Lindsay Duncan’s character, Dolphin, says: “Poor Seth, it’s all so horrible isn’t it. The nightmare of childhood.” It’s a theme that runs through Ridley’s other two films (Heartless and The Passion of Darkly Noon) wonderful children’s novels as well. Its childhood for everyone who got left on the outside. Those who were never lived a sheltered childhood, or those that were too sheltered and removed from society. Ridley described how Seth is essentially our narrator, looking back at his childhood from old age and condensing several horrific events into one darkly surreal summer.
It certainly explains why what we see is never entirely reliable or why Seth as a child seems to discount certain events. Does he really believe Dolphin is the vampire that killed his friend? Or does he really know full well they are the victim of the murderous gang in the Cadillac and is merely clinging on to the brother he idolizes. The isolation and strangeness of childhood is captured perfectly by Ridley with his wonderful direction and screenplay and Seth’s seeming retreat into fantasy to deal with the horrors unfolding in front of him. As is the unreliability of our own minds and how we recall events of our past. The way we exaggerate our lives for better or for worse. In the end, Ridley’s word transcends simple horror and becomes pure gothic fantasy.
Dick Pope’s cinematography is simply stunning. The almost supernatural qualities to rural Idaho are really something to behold, and are reminiscent in some ways of not just Terrence Malik but Wizard of Oz. If you ever saw this film and went to Idaho you would probably feel disappointed that everything looks so bland. No piece of gothic fantasy is complete without a magical score and that is provided by Nick Bicat. The sometimes deliberately OTT score compliments the overdone strangeness of the film perfectly and heightens the disturbing nature of some of the film’s most arresting moments such as the death of Seth’s father.
But it all comes back to those home truths that support that fantasy. How childhood isn’t all idealized, innocent happiness delivered by billion dollar studio and that the innocence of childhood is not purity but an absence of understanding. They can be touched by horror and darkness and project it outwards in return without even realizing it. It is a truth young Seth doesn’t realize until it’s too late and his childhood is lost forever.