Philip Ridley’s acclaimed tale of childhood, vampires and the prairie is as beautiful and menacing as ever.
Marking its long-overdue return with a handsome 25th anniversary restoration, this oft-overlooked oddity from multimedia artist, playwright and filmmaker Philip Ridley has lost none of its surreal power. Although it disappeared into obscurity after picking up 11 awards during its international film festival run, this welcome re-issue of the cult favourite suggests a healthy revival could be nigh.
A quarter century on, the film looks magnificent (Dick Pope’s exterior photography is exquisite), while tonally it feels as deliriously offbeat and unpredictable as ever, fusing together as it does elements of David Lynch, Guy Maddin and Edward Hopper. Its director described it as a ‘mythical’ look at childhood, and the young Jeremy Cooper anchors the neo-Gothic nightmare effectively as the imaginative and increasingly desperate Seth Dove, whose nearest and dearest are floundering around him in ever-more sinister circumstances.
The adults are a mixed bag of damaged souls. Mum is a gibbering wreck, while Dove’s father is a hopeless, blubbering oddball who buries his head in comic books about vampires. Only Dove’s brother (Viggo Mortensen, in an early screen performance), returning from military service in the Pacific, offers any real sense of hope, even when veering wildly between attentive and caustic. A local English widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) nicely reflects the boy’s lively imagination and inherent fears, while a mysterious gang of local thugs in a black Cadillac add to the unknown menace. There is clearly foul play at work.
The film oscillates almost brashly between the inexplicable and the overt, while leaving much to question. None of the characters are really adequately explored – they appear to be a motley crew of misfits, left fending for themselves in the glistening prairies of 1950s America – yet there is a world of depravity just beneath the surface of this corn-pickin’ facade.
Even with the current crop of offbeat narratives inching towards mainstream cinema, it’s hard to imagine a film like this being green-lit today. At its core lies a sombre, foreboding tale of neglect and retribution, with little sense of hope as our young protagonist inevitably faces the consequences of his actions (and those around him). The Reflecting Skin is both strikingly bleak and beautiful, near-riveting in its relentless pursuit of the dark and horrific, and a rare and unusual work that deserves its place among similar, better-known fare in the genre.