The Reflecting Skin (1990)

DECEMBER 10, 2011


Usually when I tweet what movie I'm watching, the replies are pretty typical: sarcastic "Good lucks" or maybe a "Oh, let me know how it is!" (which always puzzles me a bit - I let everyone know in the review?). But when I tweeted that today's movie was The Reflecting Skin, no less an authority than the esteemed Simon Barrett had two replies: one to let me know that it was one of his favorite films, and two that he was a bit shocked to discover that it was on DVD. Having never heard of the film before I was offered a copy to review, it didn't really dawn on me that it was never released on DVD until now, so all of you fans say thanks to Echo Bridge for doing you a solid.

There were a few other comments, but none mentioned that the film wasn't really horror in the traditional sense; it was closer to David Lynch-esque weirdo drama, where folks associate it with horror just to make sure it's not mistaken for a typical coming of age period piece, which this mostly is. Our hero Seth is a young lad who doesn't seem to know the difference between right and wrong, and over a few months we see his world get turned upside down thanks to real world horrors, some of which he attributes to vampirism thanks to an over-reactive imagination. Might make an interesting double feature with Martin, now that I think about it.

Anyway, it's quite good, and even if you hate it you have to admit that it's hardly a "typical" movie in any way shape or form. Top billed Viggo Mortensen doesn't appear until the halfway mark, we're introduced to our hero as he kills an innocent frog (and terrorizes a woman in the process), and there's a subplot about an "angel" that is actually a discarded fetus. It FEELS like a normal movie at the outset, but it's all the little details like the above that give it such a strange, at times almost impenetrable life. Like some sort of weird Monet in movie form, I guess.

But I dug that, because as with Little Deaths, it meant I was never able to get ahead of the movie. The identity of the child killer isn't too hard to guess, but there are several other mysteries to the film, some answered, many not. I also like that it managed to have an effectively slow pace even though it had enough plot points for half a dozen movies: vampires, child killers, possible child molestation, suicide, the war (Viggo's character is a returning WWII soldier, but his attitude is more like that of a disillusioned Vietnam vet), a dead fetus... yet almost nothing "action"-y happens in the entire movie. Viggo fights a dude near the end, that's about it - everything else of note is off-screen.

There's also a subplot about Seth's crazy mother, one I wish had a bit more weight to it. At one point we see her forcing him to drink what seems like a gallon of water - huh? She also sort of snaps when Viggo comes home and then more or less exits the movie; when we see her it's mostly just her fretting in the background, never again taking an active role in the proceedings. The other unexplained plot points didn't bug me too much (writer/director Philip Ridley's other film Heartless was just as obtuse, so I was expecting it), but this one felt like it was missing a beat or two.

Otherwise, I just dug the movie's strange tone. Sure, I couldn't begin to tell you why there's a scene of Seth walking past a pair of twins that make weird bird sounds, but it was damned creepy and added to the overall "When you're a kid the world doesn't make a lot of sense" metaphor, albeit taken to bizarre extremes. The stuff with the "vampire" also generated a lot of unease, since they leave it so vague as to whether or not she actually IS one - she goes outside in the daylight, but claims to be 200 years old. She doesn't show fangs or anything, but she does look progressively younger as the movie unfolds (as if being revived by fresh victims).

And hell, even if the narrative question marks angered me, I could at least enjoy the scenery. Dick Pope's cinematography is gorgeous, perfectly matching that old "Americana" look despite being shot in Canada while providing a number of eerily beautiful shots - he loves gray/blue skies over yellow/brown scenery, that's for sure. Even in the rather unspectacular DVD presentation (seemingly taken from a VHS - it's pan & scan too), this is a wonderful looking FILM, reminding me of what a damn shame it is that everything is switching to digital, which can never reproduce this sort of vivid, naturally high contrast imagery despite their best efforts.

The DVD is hilariously bare-bones; the main menu offers "Play" and "Scenes", and the chapter sub-menu just has a list of Chapters 1-12 - no screenshot or chapter title to give them any sort of context. However I guess it's just as well that they didn't include the trailer, which admirably nails the movie's odd tone but contains at least two major spoilers (and also emphasizes the "vampire" subplot, which is somewhat misleading). I've included it below for tradition, but I urge you to skip it until you've seen the film itself. In a movie with very few 100% facts in its narrative, you don't need a couple of them spoiled.

What say you?


  1. Randomly, this is one of my favorite movies. My ART teacher of all people sent me on a journey to find it, and I was really happy when I did. It's just so damned odd and sort of creepy... I'm super psyched you reviewed it.

  2. I'm a huge fan of THE REFLECTING SKIN. I've got a store-bought/prerecorded VHS copy from the 90's, but this movie is long overdue for a quality Blu-ray special edition for sure...

  3. You might want to check out "The Passion of Darkly Noon" - also by this director, with Viggo again plus Ashley Judd and Brendan Fraser. It's also quite creepy (and kinda weird also).

  4. I loved this movie long ago. Haven't seen it in at least 15 years, though. I remember it as sort of MY LIFE AS A DOG as directed by David Lynch. Very beautiful, painterly visuals. There may even be some direct Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth painting homages (though again, my memory is shot). I think I saw EUROPA EUROPA around the same time I saw this, and I lump those two together for some reason, although I'm sure it's the coming-of-age story and not the dark weirdness (only in THE REFLECTING SKIN) that they share. This is a lost gem.


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