“Sometimes, terrible things happen quite naturally,” sighs Dolphin Blue, played by Lindsay Duncan in Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin (1990). Bad things are indeed happening on the lonely Dove farm. Ruth, her husband Luke, and young son Seth run an out of the way gas station during the 1950s. Ruth resents her husband and constantly badgers him about the smell of gasoline permeating their home. She laments that her son Cameron will come back from the war and miss the pretty islands he’s been fighting in.
Seth, played by Jeremy Cooper, spends most of his days running around the countryside with his friends Eben and Kim getting into trouble. Seth has a preoccupation with the widow, Dolphin Blue, down the road. She’s English, dresses all in black, and lives in a home littered with trophies from animals killed before the film starts. Seth and his friends are keen on catching giant toads and inflating them with straws. The boys lure Dolphin, the widow over to a ballooned up amphibian and it explodes all over her. The boys take off and we begin our analysis of American Gothic meets Gummo. These kids aren’t near the deviants that the kids in Gummo are but we watch Seth grow more and more withdrawn into himself as “bad things” start happening.
Soon, Seth’s friend Eben goes missing and the small town is overwrought with fear, the boy’s father even insists that the boy was taken because of his sins. On a particularly hot afternoon, Seth goes to fetch his father some water where he finds Eben’s body floating in their well. The deputy swoops in to accuse Luke Dove of murdering the boy based on a past affair with a 17-year-old boy, claiming he knows what he did. Luke, overcome with fear or guilt (I’m unsure as to which) runs out to his rusting pumps and douses himself in gasoline, lighting a match right as Seth runs towards him.
After the gruesome suicide, Cameron Dove, played by Viggo Mortensen, returns home from testing bombs and becomes involved with the widow Dolphin Blue. Seth, meanwhile, slips further and further into himself as he imagines Dolphin Blue to be a vampire and keeps seeing a shiny black car full of greasers every time something goes awry.
*Some spoilers may occur beyond this point*
The Reflecting Skin was one of those gems I’d been hunting down for a decade. When I first started collecting and researching horror titles this one was always at the top of the list and now thanks to Mondo-Digital and Zavvi, you can watch it. Though it took years for me to track this title down, I’m glad I could see it in pristine condition. The rolling fields of wheat are our primary visual focus within this dusty setting.
Seth spends most of his time roaming through the fields, hand painted by Ridley himself to look even brighter. The vast space gives Seth seemingly endless places to hide out and scheme. While I was reading an interview with Phillip Ridley in a recent issue of Rue Morgue, he described a specific set of scenes in the film involving a sleek black car full of 50s greasers worthy of any Stephen King novel. The car and the boys show up early on in the film to get gas from the Dove’s gas station. At this point I’m led to believe they’re real, but anytime they appear from that point on they are meant to be figments of Seth’s imagination. He sees them right before each murder happens in the film, leading us to believe it’s Seth, a child, responsible for these grotesque murders.
With that in mind, the story seemed clearer than perhaps it would have been had I not read the interview. I liken The Reflecting Skin with a film I watched earlier this year called The Boy. Not to be confused with the theatrical release film of the same name with the puppet, but the indie film about a boy living in a dying motel with his father who is developing serial killing tendencies as he flits about the grounds alone. The quiet atmosphere and dusty landscape gives it a hazy dreamlike quality that lulls the viewer into warm comfort.
While Viggo might be the biggest name to come from the film, his story isn’t quite the focus but I love watching him in beginning horror roles. Cameron Dove comes back from war to his family’s isolated home after his father’s suicide. With nothing to do, a strenuous relationship with his mother, and longings for war he begins a relationship with Dolphin Blue. Seth, thinking she’s a vampire, believes she is causing Cameron’s declining health. In reality, he’s suffering effects from radiation exposure.
Ridley sets up an unreliable narrator through Seth – we don’t know if what he’s seeing is actually happening or if it’s a manifestation of his bent psyche. Much like the new film The Boy (not the puppet one), Seth suffers from boredom. He’s got friends to run around with but I got the impression he only hung out with them because they were the only ones around. Once he’s bored of them the greasers reappear as wraiths. Now, whether they commit the murders or Seth does is up to you.