19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

“You been exploding frogs again?”–Ruth Dove

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING:  Jeremy Cooper, , Lindsay Duncan

PLOT:  Over-imaginative young Seth, growing up in post-World War II rural USA, comes to believe that his widowed neighbor is actually a vampire.  After his father dies in unexpected fashion, the older brother he adores returns from his military tour of the Pacific.  When the brother falls in love with the vampire widow, Seth tries to find a away to save him.

Still from The Reflecting Skin (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Philip Ridley’s first directorial effort, after breaking into the movie business by writing the script for The Krays.  He is also an author of children’s books.
  • A top-billed, pre-fame Viggo Mortensen had just come off playing the role of the cannibal “Tex” in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
  • The production company for the film (Bialystock & Bloom Limited) is jokingly named after Zero Mostel and Gene Hackman’s characters in The Producers.
  • This film, with its hyper-imaginative child protagonist roaming among golden fields of wheat, was an obvious inspiration for Terry Gilliam‘s 2005 film Tideland, which has a slightly different atmosphere but can be seen as a companion piece.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Seth cradling and asking advice from the petrified baby (which he believes to be an angel) that he found hidden in an egg-like box in a hayloft chapel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Nothing that happens in The Reflecting Skin is literally impossible.  Much of the film’s bizarre effect comes from the characters, especially the weird widow Dolphin who is obsessed with decay and destruction and whose husband hanged himself after a week of marriage. Other characters who form the background of young Seth Dove’s weird world are his perpetually on the verge of tears, creatively abusive mother; a father who reeks of gasoline and hides a secret past; a drunken neighbor obsessed with his own sinful thoughts who dresses like a Puritan; the world’s unluckiest town sheriff, who has lost three body parts to animal attacks and who wears a slice of a colander for an eyepatch; and a hot-rod hearse full of juvenile delinquents that haunts the back roads of this Midwestern farm community.  Altogether, it’s a such an odd concoction of unlikely ingredients, told in a straightforward dramatic manner, that might earn the label “improbable realism” (as well as “Midwestern Gothic”).

Original trailer for The Reflecting Skin

COMMENTS: On it’s release in 1990-1991, The Reflecting Skin was frequently compared to the work of David Lynch, usually unfavorably (although the video box design prominently quotes Roger Ebert as saying he likes The Reflecting Skin better than Lynch).  In 1990, the comparison was inevitable: Blue Velvet was still fresh in critics minds, and Lynch was contemporaneously plowing much the same weird-underbelly-of-middle-America turf in the television series “Twin Peaks.”  In that era “Lynchian” became a virtual synonym for “weird,” a compact way for the critic to describe the tone of the movie.  This lazy Lynch analogy (which replaced the earlier lazy Fellini analogy, and which still raises its head almost anytime a filmmaker ventures outside the strict realist format) is unfortunate.  It hints that Lynch, the then and current face of non-academic film surrealism, invented a weird tradition that existed long before he did.  Further, the analogy suggests that here on out, any director who uses subtly unnerving, bizarre imagery to introduce dark psychological undercurrents into an otherwise realistic story is merely copying Lynch and has no originality or vision of his own.  The comparison sweeps what is unique about The Reflecting Skin under the rug, while simultaneously dismissing it as something only “weird” folks would be interested in.

Ridley’s debut film is clearly reminiscent of Lynch, but the differences reveal more than the similarities.  Ridley’s sense of humor is less flamboyant than Lynch; he also tends to handle his bizarre touches with more subtlety.  Most significantly, for better or worse, The Reflecting Skin has a literary sensibility missing in Lynch.  It feels like a adaptation of an out-there experimental novella.  That’s precisely what we might expect from a first time director whose previous career was as a novelist and playwright.

There are two areas in which Ridley’s novelistic style comes to the forefront.  The first is characterization.  Each of the characters is painstakingly detailed and drawn.  Other than Seth Dove, who’s too young to have much backstory, the major characters all bring a complex history that’s often only hinted at.  The widow Dolphin, most obviously, has her husband’s suicide, but she also carries with her from childhood an unexplained fascination with destruction (she gives Seth advice on new forms of vandalism to try out, and confesses that she loved the bombing of London during the war).  Seth’s mother, Ruth, is clearly unbalanced, and likely clinically depressed; the roots of her misery aren’t clear, but their effect on her is obvious.  Luke Dove, the passive husband and father who spends his days reading pulp novels, has a secret past that will be hinted at, if not fully disclosed, in the course of the movie.  Cameron, the film’s most normal character and therefore the one the viewer is drawn to identify with, has obviously been profoundly affected by what he witnessed on his military tour.  Although he describes the awe and beauty of the nuclear explosions he saw in the “pretty islands” of the Pacific in a wistful (but also very slightly ashamed) voice, there are hints that something more scarring may have happened to him overseas, especially in the way he denies being a hero and casts aside the American flag that Seth greets him in when he returns home.

These main characters have far more depth and are far more interesting than the usual Hollywood cutouts, or even Lynch’s usual caricatures.  Despite their magnified eccentricities, each seems very real.  Unfortunately, a few of the minor characters do fit into the “pointlessly quirky,” ersatz-Lynch stereotype.  Joshua, who dresses like a Pilgrim in a Thanksgiving pageant and is presumably a Mennonite or Quaker, is overplayed by David Longworth.  He chews such massive chunks of scenery in his first appearance, where he is tormented by the suspicion that God has taken his son from him as punishment for his wicked thoughts, that he makes heartbreaking grief seem like a bad joke.  He does better in his second scene, where a prop bottle of whiskey justifies the overacting.  Even worse is Robert Koons’ Sheriff Ticker.  To his character’s implausible backstory and ridiculous trademark eyepatch (with breathing holes poked in it) he adds an odd, geographically uncertain accent and over-enunciates badly in an attempt to give his lines more weight.  Koons appears to view the role as a platform to audition for a “Twin Peaks” spin-off or rip-off.  The acting in the movie as a whole is at best uneven.  The three child actors can be excused for not nailing their parts, but in a movie where most of the other actors deliver naturalistic performances of weird characters, these two minor portrayals break the tone and do evoke Lynch at his most self-indulgent.

The other way in which Ridley differentiates himself from Lynch is in his literary style of symbolism.  At this stage of his career, Lynch used symbols that are either elegant and obvious (Blue Velvet‘s the severed ear buried in the grass of a suburban paradise to represent middle America’s dark buried secrets), or fully surreal and incongruous (Dianne Ladd smearing her face with lipstick in Wild at Heart).  Either way, Lynch’s imagery is largely self-contained within each individual scene.  Ridley uses imagery in a carefully studied manner, making it echo throughout the film, as a good novelist is trained to do.  Consider, for example, the symbol of drinking water.  At one point early on his father tells young Seth, “You should drink, or else you’ll turn to dust.  A man’s got to drink.”  Seth, however, consistently refuses a cup of water, although he is always delighted to fetch some for his pa.  Later, his mother forces the boy to drink obscene amounts of water as a punishment.  Then, when Seth goes to get a drink for his father, he finds their water supply is poisoned by a dead body in the cistern; and even later, he watches his father drink gasoline rather than water.  All of this, of course, connects to and is reminiscent of another strata of symbolism in the movie: the vampire’s need to drink blood to keep from turning into dust.

What this web of symbols all may mean, if anything, is left to the viewer to decide.  The central metaphor of the movie—the “reflecting” skin”—is treated with similar obscurity.  Most obviously, it refers to the unnaturally shiny skin of a baby seen in a photograph, a victim of the Hiroshima bombing.  But skin imagery also recurs throughout other parts of the film: the children are impressed by the skin of the frog they blow up in the first scene, and Dolphin is particularly obsessed with skin, and how it turns into wrinkles.  And “reflecting” brings to mind mirrors, yet another symbol in the film and one that again links to vampire lore. Other layers of images are treated in a similar fashion: sunshine reverberates throughout the film.  So do babies, who are also linked to angels. So do references to sin, particularly to original sin.  Dove is not only the family name, but in one of the weirdest sequences in the film Seth sees a pair of monk-like figures cooing and carrying what appears to be a dead dove.  “Dolphin” lives in a home decorated with nautical knick-knacks.  And of course there is the black car that roams the countryside, a rather obvious, almost literal symbol of death.

What it all may add up to is left unsaid.  Obviously, there is a theme of loss of moral innocence, and also a theme of encroaching age and decay.  But, for the most part, Ridley fills the screen with unresolved metaphors that seethe and boil just below the surface of the narrative.  It is tempting to view The Reflecting Skin, as many critics did, as pretentious twaddle, the work of a director desperate to convince the audience that he has something meaningful to say but who actually has no coherent ideas of his own.  The degree of care with which Ridley peppers the script with consistent recurring imagery, the professional way he utilizes foreshadowing, and the literal sense of the surface narrative, however, belie that interpretation.  Ridley has carefully constructed his exercise in ambiguous meaning; there’s nothing thoughtless or sloppy about it.  The film deliberately points at some truth it finds is beyond its ability to grasp.

The main aspect of the movie that turns audiences off is its relentless pessimism.  In the world of The Reflecting Skin, death seems to be the happiest end to which someone can come.  The alternative is to be pounded by tragedy and loss into a mush of madness, as happens to Ruth, almost happened to Dolphin, and may happen to Cameron.  Each and every character is singled out for a tragic end, and although there is a good bit of gallows humor along the way, most viewers will find the ceaseless negativism hard to bear.  To top it off, the final scene offers zero catharsis, pushing beyond fatalism into the realm of full-bore nihilism.  The scene is also unintentionally ridiculous.  But the howling conclusion is completely characteristic of the movie, which can best be described as full of fascinating ideas and thoughts that are often marred by poor execution.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… part horror story, part absurdist comedy, mostly pretentious nonsense.”–Vincent Camby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Even with its obvious flaws… there’s something oddly compelling about this weird, weird movie. 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.”–Steve Davis, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“A seamless, weirdly conceived and excellently written movie, it is full of sharply observed, poetically linked details, and while some of the direction is uneven, the British Ridley (who is best known as a painter) makes compelling use of landscape; the few houses rise out of the flat, empty wheatfields like stark gravestones.”–TV Guide

IMDB LINKThe Reflecting Skin (1990)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

At the Movies:  TV film critics Siskel & Ebert view clips and briefly discuss The Reflecting Skin (verdict: one thumbs up, one thumbs down)

DVD INFO:  Surprisingly, given the large number of fans who remember the film fondly and the post-Lord of the Rings popularity of Viggo Mortensen, The Reflecting Skin has never been available on DVD.  There very well may be legal issues regarding the rights. Viewers wishing to see it will have to find an old VHS copy (for example, on E-bay or from Amazon associates) and deal with the full-screen, extras-free version. Those with even rarer audio-visual equipment can try find a copy the 1992 laserdisc issued by Live Home Video (features unknown).  Meanwhile, keep your fingers crossed for a proper DVD release.

UPDATE: Echo Bridge released a bare bones Reflecting Skin DVD in 2011 (buy).

UPDATE 2: Soda Pictures (see comments section) released a restored Region B Blu-ray in the UK with metric tonnes of special features (buy [region B or multi-region Blu-ray players]). These include commentary by , trailers, art galleries, and two of Ridley’s rare early surreal short films: “Visiting Mr. Beak” and “The Universe of Dermot Finn.” The release also includes two short documentaries, “Dreaming Darkly” (about Ridley’s second film, The Passion of Darkly Noon) and “Angels & Atom Bombs” (which, as promised, features a screenshot of this page). Altogether, this is far and away the best presentation of Reflecting Skin available for those who can play the disc.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Bani Sadr.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

15 thoughts on “19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)”

  1. I don’t think people realize how hard it was to find truly weird films before the internet.

    I used to cruise my video store for hours, hoping to find something different.

    The Reflecting Skin was something I managed to pull out of that morass. It was a film unlike anything I’ve seen. A large part of my fascination with obscure cinema was stoke by this film.

    Somebody put it on DVD!

  2. I first saw this film at 1:00 am on television (the late movie) back in the mid 90s. I couldn’t stop watching it. Though I was progressively becoming more disturbed by the film (and in need of sleep), I was struck and mesmerized by its manner of describing the horrors of a childhood on the verge of psychosis. The imagery was haunting and captured the loneliness and confusing nature of the adult world from the vantage point of a child (albeit, a particularly confusing and mad adult world). Anyhow, I am always so thrilled when I find anyone who has also seen this film. I finally purchased the VHS (which arrived in need of some repair as it was messed up inside…fitting) these many years later….still as weird as ever.
    So glad I found this Web page…..Thanks

  3. I have been trying to remember the title of this movie for more than a decade. I consider it the weirdest of cinematic masterpieces. Yes, there are movies that are more ‘out there,’ but this film does the best job of mixing the horrifyingly ‘real’ with the darkness of a child’s twisted imagination to create something so unique and uniquely moving. Thanks ‘366WM’ for helping me to find this incredible movie!

  4. This is a wonderful site.

    I’ve just started doing a movie review podcast, and this movie was one of the ones we wanted to discuss. Unfortunately I can’t find it anywhere online, and we’re scheduled to record our next session soon. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated…

    -Steve

  5. Im really pleased that I discovered your website, it experienced fundamentally almost everything as much as the material Ive been looking for.. By yourself very have fantastic reviews. Because of a bunch for attention-grabbing posting. A increase within just Further A shapely.

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  7. A new special edition Blu-Ray of this film has been released in the UK and Canada by Soda Pictures. 366 Weird Movies makes a cameo in one of the bonus features ;)

    1. FYI: there *is* a Region A Canadian release of that Soda Pictures blu-ray, but it also seems to have become hard-to-find. I bought mine off Amazon, but I’m not seeing it there anymore (U.S. or Canada site). As of this post, you can still get it on ebay for a decent price.

  8. This is one of my all time favorite films! A dream inducing ride that has something for fans of art horror with a taste of true American Gothic. If you haven’t seen this you are cheating yourself.

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