The Reflecting Skin

The Reflecting Skin stillRated R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Written and directed by Phillip Ridley


This is a horror film that, unlike so many horror films of today, relies more on craft than on spectacle. Although it eludes genre restrictions, if pressed to use a high concept pitch, I would describe it as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” meets David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”

There is no real niche market for this film. It doesn’t have the special effects or teen-emphasis of a “Nightmare On Elm Street” or “Scream II” that would satisfy the blood-lust of most horror fans. However, it does have a flare for the grotesque, and if you can stomach the opening “frog sequence” you’ve passed the biggest hurdle.

“The Reflecting Skin” skillfully weaves together the threads of childhood innocence, small-town eeriness, the legacy of war, and romantic/gothic dread. Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” film franchise (now in its umpteenth sequel of releases straight to video) attempts to do what Ridley accomplishes here with style and panache.

Also of note is Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Cameron, Seth’s older brother. Viggo with short hair looks terribly different than his portrayal as Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but his brooding intensity fits the part well.

Although this is not a recent film, I’ve decided to go back and review it anyway. It happens to be one of those rare gems that everyone seems to have missed and I think it deserves a second look. Unfortunately, it’s only available on VHS, not on DVD or in widescreen.

However, with its views of lush prairie landscapes and beautiful cinematography, it just begs for a re-release on a more appropriate format.


Somewhere on the Idaho prairie in the 1950’s. We open on the cherub-faced Seth Dove (age eight) running through a golden field.

Seth and his friends (Eben & Kim) decide to play a prank on a beautiful widow woman named Dolphin whose all-black attire makes her seem strange, even in a town full of idiosyncracies.

They find the biggest bull-frog they can lay their hands on, then insert a straw into its bladder and literally puff it up like a balloon. The frog is placed carefully by the side of the road and the boys hide in the field.

When Dolphin walks past, she notices the frog and bends over to examine it. Meanwhile, one of the boys has a slingshot ready. He fires, and the frog explodes in a spray of blood, completely soaking Dolphin and causing her to go into hysterics.

Unfortunately for him, Dolphin goes straight to Seth’s mother, who in turn, demands that he go apologize.

It doesn’t help matters that Seth’s father likes to read pulp horror magazines and his latest issue describes vampires in a way, that to Seth’s mind, completely match up with Dolphin.

Despite this, Seth girds himself and goes to apologize. Dolphin accepts his apology, but the moment of calm soon disappears when Seth’s innocent interest in her late husband’s whaling spear sets off a nervous breakdown. It seems her husband comitted suicide and to remember him, she lives in the empty house that belonged to his family, wears black for perpetual mourning, and keeps a bottle of Bay Rum so she can have a physical reminder of how he used to smell.

Unnerved by her breakdown, Seth flees the house, but quickly draws the conclusion that Dolphin must be a vampire. He believes she drained her husband of blood and that the bottle of Bay Rum must be his blood and sweat, from which she practices her evil magic to stay young.

Dolphin is not the real threat, however. The real threat is from a black Cadillac with four teenage pedophiles on a raping and killing spree. Their targets are young boys like Seth. The Cadillac is introduced almost like a shark. It swims through the golden fields in search of its next victim. At one point the leader of the pedophiles approaches Seth, then lets him go after speaking to him and caressing his face briefly.

Seth’s friends are not so fortunate…

One by one, children begin dying around the community. The sheriff (a man who lost his eye and his hand to his incompetence in hunting wild animals) does not inspire confidence. He has only one lead, however. Years before, he caught Seth’s father, a closet homosexual, in flagrante delicto with a 17-year-old boy. The scandal was more than a decade ago, but the sheriff figures it’s just a short jump from a man in his thirties having consensual sex with a 17-year-old to a man in his late forties deciding to rape and kill 8-year-olds.

It is at this point that Seth’s family dynamic begins to make sense. Seth’s father is isolated and miserable. Seth’s mother is abusive to him and to Seth as well. When she is not throwing tantrums she is mooning over a picture of Cameron, Seth’s older brother, who has been away in the Pacific with the Naval Air Forces.

Although never explicit, it is obvious that her lack of sexual release with her gay husband has given her an unhealthy fixation on her handsome son, Cameron.

When Seth’s father and mother have a confrontation after the sheriff’s visit, Seth’s father realizes he can no longer live with himself, so commits suicide by dousing himself (and drinking) straight from a gasoline pump, then lighting himself on fire. Seth witnesses the spectacle, but sees it more as a fireworks display that has released his father from his unhappy prison.

Cameron comes home to attend the funeral and to seek refuge from the horror of the atom bomb testing he was made to perform in the Pacific Islands.

Once home, however, Cameron meets with Dolphin and the two of them are instantly attracted to one another. Seth is upset because he loves his brother and believes Dolphin means to drain his blood. However, when Seth tries to interfere, Cameron angrily shoves him away.

Later, Cameron presents Seth with three black & white snapshots in an attempt to cheer him up and apologize for pushing him away before. One is a pin-up of a naked woman, another is a picture of Seth gazing admiringly at Cameron during happier times, and the third is a picture of a child whose skin was strangely scarred by radiation burns – turned silvery black. These silver splotches, like liquid mercury, are the reflecting skin of the film’s title and a metaphor for the devastation brought on by the tortured pasts of the adults all around Seth. These three images–sexuality, hero worship, and horror–intertwine to carry us through the third act.

Seth is somewhat mollified, but is upset to notice that his brother is losing weight and becoming ill. We recognize the symptoms as radiation sickness, but to Seth, it is a sure fire sign that Dolphin’s vampiric powers are at work.

Will Seth recognize the true danger in time? Will the killers be brought to justice?
I won’t give away the ending. Go see it for yourself.