Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about:The Reflecting Skin.
As I have said many times in this series, horror can be about so many different things. Visuals, concepts or characters can be used to terrify us and they do so in varying ways. Some things are shocking and give us a jump, others fill us with dread and then there are the horror films that force us to confront the real terrors present in humanity. Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin (1990) is such a film. The simplest way to categorise it would be by saying it is about the horror of youth. We are formed as people when we’re kids, so malleable to the influence of those around us. This film shows how a child develops in a twisted environment. A warped world creates a warped child. Ridley has a fascinating way of making films. The writing is quietly surreal and shows us a heightened version of reality. This film is like Terrence Malick and David Lynch collaborated to create a childhood nightmare. Although there are killers in this film, they aren’t the scariest things. The scariest things are the moments that terrify children. Cruelty directed at them isn’t just chilling because of how it is portrayed but because we know how it will be distorting them even more.
In 1950’s rural Idaho, 10 year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) lives with his emotionally (and physically) abusive mother and weak father. They run a small petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Seth becomes obsessed by the idea of vampires due to the stories his father reads. He begins to believe one of his neighbours could be a vampire. The reclusive widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth’s brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) comes back from the war and for a brief time offers Seth a reprieve from the awful folk around him. That is until Cameron and Dolphin begin an affair, both drawn to each other because they are both emotionally damaged. Seth still believes she is a vampire and now fears for his brother’s safety, thinking that she is sucking the life from him. While all this is going on there are a string of murders perpetuated against children.
At one point the character of Dolphin Blue pontificates, “The nightmare of childhood, and it only gets worse”. Normally I don’t like it when a film explicitly states its themes but in this case I think it was appropriate. This is what The Reflecting Skin is about. Not only the horrible things that can happen to children but also the things they can do. Children can be so cruel and in an environment like the one in this film, they are even crueller. The film opens with a scene that first appears like a perfect picture of Americana. Three young boys come across a large bullfrog and are dazzled by its size. They take it with them and seem in genuine wonder of it. Sunlight dances off the golden cornfields as they let out carefree laughter. Soon that perfect picture is completely distorted. The boys stick a reed into the frog and begin blowing air into it. They lay it out like a green venous balloon until a woman (who we later learn is Dolphin Blue) comes across it. The boys fire a stone from their slingshot and explode the frog. Blood flies over her and all she can do is let out a bloodcurdling scream. As she freaks out the boys scamper away laughing. Seth looks back for a moment and the distraught woman looks at him but he just runs off to enjoy the rest of his day. This opening scene sets the tone for this fascinatingly dark journey. It’s a place in America where people harm each other with very little thought or care. Of course what the children did was awful, but it was a response to the environment they live in. Where they live is toxic and they are the result of it. Seth’s punishment is to be terrified. This is an environment of fear and it breeds a generation annulled to acceptably scary things, allowing for even more horrific things to enter that space.
The arrival of Seth’s brother Cameron shields him from the world, but only momentarily. Viggo Mortensen’s excellent performance gives us a break from the nastiness too. He conveys a sensitivity and compassion unlike anyone in the film. At times he gets angered but he means well. Cameron and Dolphin have both suffered in their own way and offer each other an escape from the awful world around them. Sadly this leaves Seth, once again, without an escape. One of his friend’s is found dead and so he starts talking to a foetus he found hidden in a barn. Just as his brother finds solace in a woman who Seth believes is undead, Seth would also rather converse with the dead than the living. The people around him seem to have died years ago, particularly his father. After an incident where he was found topless with another man in a barn, Seth’s father was made an outcast. All he does is quietly read his stories and sell people petrol when he can. He always looks defeated, his life ended when he was found in that barn and now he just talks the earth a shell of a man. Everyone around Seth seems crippled by something; Dolphin by her husband’s death, his mother by her depression and Cameron by his upbringing and the war. Broken people who do not support each other can’t become whole meaning Seth is being raised as a broken child. Even the creepy and unsettling moments do not match the sadness of seeing this child get raised into something even worse than all of them. As this all goes on a car full of creeps drives round, most likely to blame for the child murders. Everyone is so blinded by their own problems that they allow this evil to enter into all their lives. The world around them is shot so beautifully so that their ugliness by contrast is even more evident.
The Reflecting Skin is a wonderful film but also an awfully depressing one. This is a bleak vision of the world. A world of horror that children need shepherded through but no one is willing to do so. They have to find their own way through but they’re not nearly prepared to do so. The way they make sense of things they are scared of creates even more confusion and fear. There are many creepy and disturbing moments but some of the scariest stuff is just how awful people can be. Ridley’s script is strange but thoughtful, the cinematography is grand and beautiful, and for the most part the performances are brilliant. Other than the slightly melodramatic ending it is a really amazing film. There’s so much to chew over and I have barely scratched the surface. Like the films of David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky or even Ben Wheatley, this film feels so specific in regards to where it came from. This is the only Phillip Ridley film I have seen but it is so very unique to him. It’s a dreamlike trip through childhood that begins with the tunnel at the end of the light. Seth’s life was at its peak at a dark place and it only spirals down from there.
James M Macleod