Few genre films sit so securely in your psyche with such a specific color palette as this subversive play of fear and imagination.
A trouble making boy living on the prairie in nineteen fifties America believes his neighbor to be a vampire as his friends turn up dead. Let’s dig into 1990’s “The Reflecting Skin”, directed by Philip Ridley!
As I See It
Billed as a vampire flick, do not expect blood geysers or even fangs.
Ridley does what many successful genre writers/directors have done, hiding a message in horror by forcing the horror into the backseat. He allows your mind to build the fear while literally painting the beauty of middle America and trotting out one of the finest actors of the past thirty years as well as a very strong child performance and an understated “monster”.
Set in the 1950s, Seth (Jeremy Cooper) and his friends Kim and Eben blow up a frog all over their neighbor Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth’s home life isn’t very stable as his mother panics about his brother Cameron (Mortensen) being away in “the pretty islands” — which you can assume means the Korean War.
Frog blood and guts may be the only gore spilled on camera, but it’s Seth’s father Luke’s gasoline-guzzling self-immolation that turns this into a true horror film.
Forced by threats and shunning to take his own life because of his closeted nature, Luke is blamed for the death of Seth’s friend Eben.
Much like the two-thousand-year catholic church pedophiliac scandal, society and community tend to miss the real threats: a group of pedo greasers (50’s goons).
Seth, too, gazes past the real monsters and allows his imagination, with some help from a novel his father was reading about vampires, to attribute traits to Dolphin which convince him of her bloodsucking nature.
This is all complicated when Cameron returns home and falls in love with Dolphin, much to Seth’s chagrin. Cameron reveals the hell of war, specifically in the atomic age, and his radiation poisoning is a great way of fooling Seth into believing his brother has also become one of the undead.
There were moments that I felt hints of metaphor, but they were all confirmed for me with the ending as Seth mimicked the death of Sergeant Elias, on his knees, hands raised, screaming at the sky as the sun died for the day.
The sun has set on that phase of life; innocence is gone and society changed.
The very obvious answer is Viggo Mortensen, who looks remarkably young even though he was on this side of thirty while filming. Released the same year he played Tex in Leatherface, it was clear how massive his talent was.
Of Gratuitous Nature
Maybe Viggo’s bare ass? I’ve got no problem with it though. The father’s death was rough, but it would be hard to call it gratuitous. A sobering dose of reality and an accurate representation of the turmoil that LGBTQ people have had to deal with historically as someone else’s idea of normal has taken precedent in their lives. Poignant and hard to look at, but on the mark.
It is between the lines that I find the beauty in this film. The thought it evokes. You know it’s an allegory, but it doesn’t force you to decipher anything to figure out what it’s commenting on. Organically, you come to your own conclusion, and there are few things I like more in the world than writing that can slip into my skin even under my watchful eye.
Ripe for a Remake
The only time I’ve ever seen a true expression of art reproduced with any real value is Tim’s Vermeer but it took a portion of sanity and gallons of sweat for him to achieve that. Though it can be argued with pretentious words like “pedantic” and “pastiche” that even that effort is worthless. My point is, no remake is needed.
No progeny to report.
Where to Watch
The Blu-Ray is available from Film Movement directly for a substantial price, or you can try your chances at the margin muncher, Amazon. You can stream on Peacock, Tubi, Vudu, Kanopy, Arrow, Plex, or Film Movement.