We had no idea what The Reflecting Skin was about; we only got a copy because Viggo Mortensen is in it. In this instance our shallowness paid off: The Reflecting Skin is weird, gorgeous, and not likely to be forgotten.
Childhood is frequently depicted as the most wonderful time of anyone’s life: it’s over too fast, and then life is downhill all the way. But that’s because it’s viewed through the lens of nostalgia. This 1990 film written and directed by Philip Ridley presents childhood through the eyes of a child, and while it is certainly full of wonder it is also terrifying and brutal.
Little Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) lives with his worn-out parents in the rural American Midwest in the 1950s. They await the return of their eldest son Cameron (Viggo), who had fought in the Pacific. Given that WWII has been over for years, you have to wonder what’s taking Cameron so long—and then you realize that amidst these golden fields of gently swaying wheat under endless blue skies (beautifully photographed by Dick Pope), there is nothing. But through a child’s eyes (accompanied by Nick Bicat’s haunting Handel-esque score), this sun-bleached world is teeming with monsters and angels.
Cameron: Why don’t you go play with your friends?
Seth: They’re all dead.
There is a spate of killings in the area—the killers appear to be a gang of youths going round in a Cadillac. Seth is convinced that the murderers are vampires; his prime suspect is a widow (Lindsay Duncan) who lives alone with her husband’s personal effects, animal skulls and weapons from whaler ancestors. We’re never really sure. You could view The Reflecting Skin as a nightmare of childhood, or as a vampire movie without the fangs and blood (If you can imagine a cross between Tree of Life and Fright Night).
Then Cameron finally comes home and falls in love with the widow.
The pace is stately, but every frame radiates foreboding. How could we miss this film when it first came out? Now we have to see it again and again.