1990’s The Reflecting Skin, directed by Philip Ridley, is a weird movie and rather obscure. It’s very interesting, quiet, bizarre, grotesque, over-the-top, and terribly beautiful, all at once. Visually, it’s stunning. The cinematography is gorgeous, very unforgettable. It has such atmosphere… Eerie, chilling, ominous, cryptic, ascetic yet lush. Admittedly some of the acting is just god-awful (especially the child actors!), but the movie overall is kind of entrancing. Destined to be thought terrible and intolerable by many, I liked it very much. It is quite possibly the movie that most embodies an “American Gothic” aesthetic for me, a haunting sense of desolation and hopelessness, mirrored by the land, and a hypocritical, unforgiving puritanism.
Taking place in rural America in the 1950s (whose landscape of yellow wheat fields and isolated gray wood frame houses standing in the midst of them is shot so impressively), The Reflecting Skin is – sort of – about child abuse, innocence, imagination, death, mortality, and love. The main character is a young boy named Seth Dove who creates an elaborate fantasy around a mysterious, otherworldly-seeming English widow living in a house nearby, believing her to be a vampire who is preying on his loved ones. I suppose it’s partly about the unfathomable innocence of youth… Instead of registering and recognizing a sense of evil in the world, Seth displaces it onto this mysterious figure, a source of external, supernatural evil, thus allowing him to escape understanding of the strange, horrific, traumatic events taking place around him.
The “vampire,” pale, regal, and obsessive, is such a strange, lovely, macabre, spectral, enigmatic character, with the most absolutely haunting speeches, remote yet intense, vehement, unnerving meditations on aging and love. Icily menacing yet alluring, preternaturally quiet with sudden outbursts of piercing, violent, grotesque, deeply primal, forlorn emotion, mercurial as a madwoman, she was played to perfection by Lindsay Duncan – a performance that should be iconic. This film, though rather controversial, is fascinating, and the cinematography alone is well worth the experience.