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  Reflecting Skin, The Troubled Childhood
Year: 1990
Director: Philip Ridley
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper, Sheila Moore, Duncan Fraser, David Longworth, Robert Koons, David Bloom, Evan Hall, Codie Lucas Wilbee, Sherry Bie, Jason Wolff, Dean Hass, Guy Buller, Jason Brownlow, Jeff Walker
Genre: Horror, Drama, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Rural Idaho in the nineteen-fifties, and Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) is an eight-year-old boy who likes to play tricks with his two friends, mostly on the widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) who they believe is a vampire and therefore deserves their victimisation of her. Today they catch a very large frog and blow it up with a tube, then place it on the road to wait for Mrs Blue to walk by. When she does, she stops to stare at the inflated amphibian, baffled, then is shocked when Seth fires a catapult at the creature, making it explode blood and guts all over her. They run away from her screams, but she notices them nonetheless. However, Seth's life is not a happy one, and his fantasy world may not keep him safe at all...

Artist turned writer and director Philip Ridley's debut feature The Reflecting Skin did not receive a warm welcome on its initial release, with almost everyone comparing it to David Lynch and coming up wanting. However, with its intent to disturb it caught the imagination of a cult following who latched on to its rich, bleak strangeness, and no matter what you thought of its quality, it did have the power to linger in the mind thanks to the way it mingled all sorts of unsettling and at times downright horrible subjects into a tapestry of what appeared to be an idealised childhood on the surface that was inexorably revealed to be nothing of the sort the further the story went on. Yet it was Seth who was doing the idealising, in spite of his experiences.

His imagining Dolphin as a vampire gives him the perfect excuse to explain away the worst aspects of life as all her fault, while ignoring the facts that she had nothing to do with the menace that was striking the small community on the vast plains and fields that he lives in. That was a recurring theme: people being blamed for something they had not done and would never do, simply because the society needed a scapegoat for some unpalatable elements that are only prospering because they are able to get away with their crimes when the innocent are taking the brunt of suspicion and punishment. This hits closer to home when Seth sees his father (Duncan Fraser) arrested for the death of one of his friends who has been raped and murdered.

We never see anyone get killed, it should be pointed out, as Ridley either implied the fate or cut away before anything terminal happened, so the more aware you were that all was definitely not right here then the more you would be able to identify what was going on. Some have claimed that Seth himself was the culprit, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially since the actual murderers were seen to be the gang of hoodlums driving around in a black Cadillac and either inviting people in to their car or grabbing them and forcing them in, but they are able to get away with it because the folks who could do something to stop them are having their attentions focused elsewhere on the wrong people, rather than them being a figment of Seth's imagination, which though strong is not represented in that manner.

When the boy's brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) returns from the Army, at least his mother (Sheila Moore) has something to soothe her frayed nerves now - or does she? Cameron has suffered some terrible experiences himself, and we become aware that he has been struck with radiation poisoning while he was away, yet another example of disintegration, of mind, body and soul. He falls for Mrs Blue in a manner that does Seth's state of mind no good whatsoever, and when his friends start disappearing he retreats into believing, for instance, the mummified human foetus he finds in a barn is an angel that has lost its wings, an accumulation of his fantasies that are about to be shattered in the end when he finally realises that he has been living lies and the harsh reality breaks in. All very much food for thought, though the film's fans tended to overlook some none-too-convincing acting, particularly from the children, which may have lent an artificial tone but not one you imagine Ridley was aiming for. A striking, sobering work nevertheless. Loud orchestral music by Nick Bic√Ęt.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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