Friday, July 25, 2008

The Reflecting Skin – review


Director: Philip Ridley

Release date: 1990

Contains spoilers

The vampire is, in my opinion, one of the most flexible icons, or even archetypes, that a filmmaker has to play with and this avant-garde look at the horror nestling in the heart of mankind is a prime example of this. This is also a prime example of a vampire movie that does not contain a vampire. What it contains is the belief in a vampire, in this case by nine year old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper).

Jeremy Cooper as Seth DoveI suggested that this film peers into the dark heart of humanity and it does so by using 1950s rural America as its setting and, to be honest, there isn’t a nice character portrayed (actually, that is probably unfair on some of the characters but it is true of our main character who is Seth himself).

exploding frog juiceThe film begins with Seth walking across the prairie holding a rather large frog, which he shows to friends Kim (Evan Hall) and Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee). They are aware that *she* is approaching – she being English widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). The boys inflate the frog and then hide in the prairie grass. When Dolhpin stops to inspect the distended frog, Seth lets loose with his catapult, exploding the frog over Dolphin.

Duncan Fraser as LukeHome life isn’t great for Seth. His brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) is away with the armed forces. His father Luke (Duncan Fraser) tries to make a living running a gas station and his mother Ruth (Sheila Moore) is a harridan, who is clearly abusive to both the boy and her husband.

the vampire bookHis father is reading a book about vampires. Seth asks and is told that they bite necks and drink blood, thus they are not very sociable. They drink blood to stay young and those they drink from grow older and older until they die. They like to sleep in coffins during the day and turn into bats at night. Seth asks if there are any round these parts and his pa says he wouldn’t be surprised. Incidentally, for the audience, the book cover clearly represents Seth, Dolphin and her house.

the widow's houseDuring the conversation Seth has seen Dolphin approach Ruth and he is sent to her home to apologise for exploding the frog over her. Dolphin seems less angry than one would expect and I think the clear reason is that she is lonely, to the point that even talking to this young boy is better than the loneliness she feels.

Lindsay Duncan as Dolphin BlueHowever, as she speaks, and in her own way explains this, her conversation is lost on the boy. She tells him how her husband made her feel young and how he is now dead – he committed suicide. She asks Seth how old he thinks she is and he suggests fifties, rather than be offended she suggests she is two hundred. Of course all this feeds into what his father had told him.

a makeshift crossSeth gets hold of the vampire book and makes the connection – Dolphin Blue is a vampire. He even breaks his catapult to build a makeshift cross. When it is discovered that Eben has gone missing, and is subsequently found in the Dove’s water store, Seth assumes that Dolphin fed off him. The police have other ideas. Twenty years before Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons) caught Luke Dove with another man in a barn, (I wondered if it was Adam Blue, Dolphin’s husband?)

The discrimination and intolerance at the heart of petty minded man comes to the fore. There is a leap from Luke being gay (albeit pushed firmly back into the closet) to he must be a paedophile and child murderer. The guilt Luke feels (due to his own urges) forces him to suicide – he swallows and douses himself with gasoline and immolates himself.

Cameron and SethThe death of the father draws Cameron back home to look after his little brother (Ruth has completely lost it by this point) but, of course, there is an attraction between Cameron and Dolphin – something Seth fears as he still believes her to be a vampire. There is also, still, a child killer on the loose.

Dolphin and CameronInterestingly, Cameron’s condition is taken by Seth to be evidence of Dolphin’s vampirism. Cameron has been at the atoll’s watching the atomic tests. Now home, his hair is beginning to fall out, his gums are bleeding and he is loosing weight. As the audience we know he has radiation poisoning but Cameron seems unaware of what is happening and Seth is convinced of Dolphin’s involvement.

Robert Koons as Sheriff TickerThe film is, in many respects, reminiscent of David Lynch’s work. It pries back the lid of small town America and shows the contents to be dark and rotting. The cinematography is wonderful but I have read some complaints centred around Jeremy Cooper’s performance as Seth.

Seth and the dead angelOf course, having a child actor carry so much of a film is always going to be difficult but I didn’t find his performance too bad at all. There is a disjointedness to it that, for me, worked. Seth is a sociopathic little git – we can’t forget that. There is a scene, having broken into Dolphin’s house, where he finds a conch shell. He comments on its beauty and then decides to smash it (and the room). The dissociative element of Cooper’s performance feeds into this aspect of the character and one cannot help but wonder whether Ridley pushed the performance in that direction deliberately.

This is not a fun movie, but it is a good movie. Far from feel good it aims for horror, but real horror born of petty-minded humanity where the fantasy figure of the vampire juxtaposes to highlight the real evils of the world. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Bill said...

I actually saw this film at the "art" theater in San Antonio Tx when it was released and recall it confused me but I liked it in as strange way. I cannot recall all of the film now and there is no way I can find it to buy or rent here in China. I would like to see it now as my taste and perception of films has changed.

By the way, I replied to your comment at my site and have a question for you. Are you from Salford England? I get other hits from around London, but most come from Salford and it looks near Liverpool. That be thou?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Bill, replied over at your site mate. Hope you get to see the film again at some point.