The Reflecting Skin

  • 1990
  • Movie
  • R
  • Drama, Horror

This intriguing, surprisingly nasty childhood fable, vaguely set in the early 1950s in the American heartland, seems to take its inspiration from such comparatively innocent, classic childhood fantasies as THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T and INVADERS FROM MARS, but THE REFLECTING SKIN is far, far darker. Cued by the sight of his father Luke Dove (Duncan Fraser)...read more

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This intriguing, surprisingly nasty childhood fable, vaguely set in the early 1950s in the American heartland, seems to take its inspiration from such comparatively innocent, classic childhood fantasies as THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T and INVADERS FROM MARS, but THE REFLECTING SKIN is far,

far darker.

Cued by the sight of his father Luke Dove (Duncan Fraser) reading a pulp novel called Vampire Blood, pre-adolescent Seth (Jeremy Cooper) comes to believe a mysterious, reclusive young woman, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), who's still grieving for her dead husband (she keeps his things in a little

box, like a coffin), is a vampire. Seth becomes concerned that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), who has just returned home from a stint in the army and quickly falls in love with Dolphin, has come under her spell, especially when Cameron grows increasingly pale and starts losing weight

and hair; it's hinted that he has radiation sickness from overseeing A-bomb testing in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Seth's young friends, first Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee), then Kim (Evan Hall), start turning up sodomized and dead, stymieing Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons). Seth attributes the deaths

to Dolphin but they are actually being committed by a roving band of leather-jacketed youths, whom only Seth has seen, roaming the countryside in a sinister black Cadillac and led by its driver (Jason Wolfe).

Written and directed by Philip Ridley, whose only previous film experience was writing the screenplay for Peter Medak's THE KRAYS, THE REFLECTING SKIN unfolds almost entirely from Seth's point-of-view, and everything he sees is misconstrued as evidence of Dolphin's vampirehood. 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.

What makes THE REFLECTING SKIN unusual is the single-minded, Freudian-nightmare grotesqueness of its characters, prompted by its opening scene--Seth and his buddies "inflate" a live frog by blowing air into its stomach, then bloodily detonate it from afar with a pea-shooter as an unsuspecting

passerby, Dolphin Blue, stoops to look at it. Seth's father is a convicted child molester, who kills himself when Kim turns up dead in the family cistern. Dolphin is a necrophile fetishist who masturbates with her husband's things. Seth's mother (Sheila Moore) is obsessed with smells and

occasionally punishes Seth by force-feeding him water right before bedtime. This is Norman Rockwell territory as invaded by Gahan Wilson, and Ridley perhaps dares too much in delineating these unsavory characters and in tackling too many themes. To his credit, there isn't an ounce of unintended

humor in the film--in fact, there isn't any humor at all. Principally, THE REFLECTING SKIN is about loss of innocence; trying to save Cameron, Seth engineers a ride in the fatal black caddy for Dolphin, and Cameron's extreme grief when her body turns up sends Seth screaming into the fields.

Shot in Ontario, THE REFLECTING SKIN is very solemnly played and paced, and its low-key, low-budget production is well mounted, beautifully photographed by Dick Pope, and features a fine score by Nick Bicat. It's not to everyone's taste, and definitely not for children, but it's a macabre little

sleeper, and an often astonishing debut for Philip Ridley. (Adult situations, sexual situations, nudity.)

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  • Released: 1990
  • Rating: R
  • Review: This intriguing, surprisingly nasty childhood fable, vaguely set in the early 1950s in the American heartland, seems to take its inspiration from such comparatively innocent, classic childhood fantasies as THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T and INVADERS FROM MARS,… (more)

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