THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990) – The Dungeon Review!
I am officially neck-deep in the 90s! If I am going to be ready for my 90s feature in January it must be done! Surprisingly I haven’t run into one film I have hated yet; admittedly I am starting with films that actually appeal to me first. I will start wading through the dregs on the weekend. The Reflecting Skin is just teetering on the edge of horror. It certainly explores some horrifying ideas but it leans heavier towards the drama. The nightmare childhood of a boy living in a rural landscape during the 1950s is dark, depressing, strange and rather unique. Some minor spoilers ahead.
Seth Dove is a nine year old boy living in a small rural community in the 1950s. His browbeaten father Luke runs a small gas station on their property and barely speaks. His angry, depressed and abusive mother Ruth despises the smell of gasoline and spends considerable time berating her husband about it. His brother Cameron has been away at war on “the pretty islands” as Seth’s mother likes to call them, and will soon be coming home. Seth spends his days hanging out with his two friends lingering about the endless fields. The trio pull a cruel prank on Seth’s widow neighbour Dolphin Blue; when his mother catches wind of it, she forces Seth to go apologize to the woman. His father’s affection for pulp fiction puts the idea in Seth’s head that Dolphin is a vampire. This is followed by the disappearance of one of Seth’s chums and a dark family secret is revealed which results in tragedy. His brother arrives soon after and meets and falls in love with Dolphin to Seth’s dismay. Meanwhile a black Cadillac full of murdering perverts are driving around the small town.
The Reflecting Skin’s endless fields and massive sky add nicely to the film’s feeling of desolation. The Reflecting Skin is a UK film about American’s that was filmed in Alberta Canada. If they really wanted desolation they should have filmed in Saskatchewan. Having driven across Canada twice now I don’t think there is a duller stretch of driving than the great flat plains of Saskatchewan. In any case, the film really is beautiful and well made and its excellent score hits all the right notes.
There are some very strange trippy snippets that give The Reflecting Skin a dream like feel. There are weirdly random moments like Seth walking past two women chirping carrying a dead bird. Seth seems to immerse himself more deeply in fantasy as the film wears on. I won’t explain the hows and whys but a dead fetus becomes Seth’s confidant. There isn’t much in the way of graphic violence but what they include is very effective and at times disturbing. I really do not care for animal violence and The Reflecting Skin opens with a pretty nasty frog death. I don’t want to give away all the secrets but there is a suicide in the film that is just brutal! It is still hovering in my mind days after watching it. The Reflecting Skin has a very relaxed pace and leisurely unleashes a series of vignettes; one more bleak than the other. I found The Reflecting Skin’s mix of strange, melancholy and ugliness compelling.
The Reflecting Skin is very dark and is one of the dreariest films I have seen in a while. It is so terribly hopeless and full of characters you would hardly call likable. Seth is an abused child and I had empathy for him, but it wasn’t always easy. Seth is cruel, destructive and frustrating at various points in the story. Seth is only nine years old and by the end of the film he sees more trauma than most people see in a lifetime. Cameron Dove has just returned from his station in Japan and carries with him a picture of a Japanese baby. Due to fallout from the bombings the baby’s skin took on a reflective quality hence the film’s title. It is clear that the experience has affected Cameron both mentally and psychically. Seth’s mother Ruth is an intimidating, frightening and intense woman. The dark family secret she carries with her is no doubt a significant contributor to her bitterness. Seth’s father Luke is a sad man who tries desperately to lose himself in pulp fiction; much like Seth, fantasy is more comforting to him than reality. It can be said that he is also an abused member of this household. There is an eccentric sheriff called Ticker with a Prosthetic hand, a chewed up ear and one eye. Sheriff Ticker’s injuries are on account of animal attacks; the drawback of being the Sheriff of a tiny town where not much happens. Sheriff Ticker finally gets himself a body count and he is going to solve these crimes gosh darn it!
I found The Reflecting Skin a hypnotic watch and its slow grind added to that vibe. The Reflecting Skin was a fascination and its perfect slap you in the face finale could not have been better. Be warned that The Reflecting Skin is not exactly a horror film, or at least it is very thin on horror elements and high on drama. I have no idea how this film escaped my radar for so many years! The Reflecting Skin is a beautifully filmed, unique, powerful, strange, sad, hopeless, merciless, ugly slow grind and comes highly recommended!
Dungeon Rating: 5/5
Directed By: Philip Ridley
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper, Sheila Moore, Duncan Fraser, David Longworth, Robert Koons, David Bloom, Evan Hall, Codie Lucas Wilbee, Sherry Bie, Jason Wolff