Poet, Author and Film Maker Philip Ridley made his directorial debut in 1990 with this 1950 set American Prairie Horror film. Thanks to the pulpy novels read his Dad the young Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) believes his secretive neighbour, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), to be a Vampire; that belief isn’t helped by the number of mysterious deaths that occurs in the immediate vicinity of his house. When his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) eventually returns from the military only to find he becomes infatuated with Dolphin, Seth’s imagination goes into overdrive.
The Reflecting Skin is a most unorthodox vampyric horror in that it isn’t about Vampires at all; instead it’s an impossibly dark coming of age story that extols the power and influence of the childhood imagination. All using the seed of his Dad’s book, Seth uses the explanation of Vampires for the deaths, perceived rebirths and the how his brother looks much older upon returning. Ridley’s screenplay uses misunderstanding to bury military guilt, mourning and serial murder under childhood innocence and naiveté in a community of almost impossible darkness. This is where the Reflecting Skin is at its searing and misanthropic best.
The success of this misanthropy comes through under-rated director of photography Dick Pope. He would later lens grimy nihilism in Mike Leigh’s Naked and the only thing that tonally separates the two is locale. Pope uses topography typically used to denote hope, freshness and new life to submerge the scepticism, instead he uses the farmland with a Malickian panoramic beauty. The pinnacle of which comes when Seth and friends Eben & Kim stalk Dolphin through the corn – either by exploding a frog in her face or circling her isolated house – Pope uses the sea of yellow as if replicating Bill Butler’s iconic work on Jaws. This is quite simply the work of a master at play.
As is always the case with cult cinema there is something lacking either stylistically or in the execution that prevents it from attaining wider success or notoriety, The Reflecting Skin is no different. First up is the sound design which is victim to two major flaws. The more egregious of the two sees an almost melodramatic chamber score histrionically bellows over the minimal quiet dialogue, seeing this in a cinema would be a task luckily the home video medium comes attached with subtitles.
Then there is that aforementioned score, while the instrumentation is in key with this small community and their isolation from anything modern, even in the 50s, the music by Nick Bicât doesn’t belong. While an argument could be made that it adds another string to Seth’s unreliable narration, a much sounder rationale would lead you down the path that suggests the score was done by someone much more comfortable with the traditional period drama than anything as obscure as the Reflecting Skin. It doesn’t damage beyond repair, if any musician could do the film the service it deserves it would be Dylan Carson of drone legends Earth.
Audio can be recut and redesigned, it’s a common thing in today’s work of creative re-adoption, pity then that the reflecting skin’s biggest issue cannot. Philip Ridley struggled with child actors, take the final scene of Seth screaming at the sun for the greatest example, it wasn’t just a case of over-acting it passed into the territory of unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps the dramatic outpouring is justified upon the young leads discovery that death is all-pervasive and even the monsters aren’t safe, but the scenery chewing upon which that message is delivered is too much for the film to handle without threatening to tilt into self-parody.
There is a self-fulfilling prophecy at play here, because Philip Ridley’s is a cult film it can be allowed a free rein whereas something with more mainstream aspirations would be torn asunder if it was guilty of the same issues. In all honesty the problems aren’t even much of an issue because this misanthropic take on childhood misinterpretation makes for one of the most interesting anti-vampire films around. For those of you interested in the oddities of horror cinema – there is something of a masterpiece hiding under The Reflecting Skin.