Retro Review: ‘The Reflecting Skin’
One of my favorite storytelling devices is how something grounded can become fantastical through the eyes of a child narrator. While it is normally charming, but Renaissance man Philip Ridley turned it into something horrifying in his 1990 indie darling The Reflecting Skin. This haunting film is rather difficult to come by, but once you see it, the movie will instantly stick into your brain.
In the desolate windswept prairie of 1950’s Midwest America, Seth lives with his dysfunctional parents awaiting the return of his brother from military service. As the bleak existence of the people of this community rolls on Seth’s young friends begin to turn up brutally murdered. While the troublemakers in the black Cadillac who have started appearing in town are definitely odd, Seth blame the troubled British widow next door, Dolphin. Not only does he blame her, but influenced by the horror paperbacks his father reads, the child becomes convinced that she is a vampire. Complicating matters is the fact that his beloved older brother starts an affair with Dolphin. Having been exposed to radiation from “the bomb” Seth’s brother begins to suffer the expected health effects. But Seth is certain this is because of Dolphin’s vampiric actions and he resolves to stop her even if it does mean desperate measures are needed.
Author, playwright, musician, and in this case director Philip Ridley has created a haunting film where the reality of the situation is just as terrifying as the horror-filled world our narrator Seth has created in his imagination. While the bleak windswept plains of the American Midwest may not appear to have much on the surface but looking beneath you find a world of secrets, trauma and violence. The visual langauge of the Reflecting Skin even highlights how isolated from the outside world everyone is. We have the sleek black Cadillac from the delinquent punks now coming through town but everything else is broken and weathered cut-off by endless field of wheat from anyone else.
Seeing things through the imaginative lens he created is the only way Seth can cope with the horrors of reality. After all the world becomes a bit more magical when your brother is not dying from radiation poisoning but is instead suffering from vampire attacks. Or convincing himself that the remains of the stillborn child Seth finds is actually an angel. There is little wonder the picture ends with the young protagonist screaming in rage against the setting sun.
While the film has sadly faded into obscurity upon its initial release it was a critical darling on the film festival circuit. The acclaim it received was well-deserved as this is a haunting gothic masterpiece of a film. It is a shame that Ridley and the vast majority of the cast aside from Lindsay Duncan and Viggo Mortensen have done little more in cinema outside of this incredible picture. That being said Philip Ridley seemingly has plenty of other artistic outlets to express himself so film