Roger Ebert liked it better than Blue Velvet. Rolling Stone gave it 3.5 stars. Declared a cult classic at Cannes, where word of mouth about its shocking opening scene was so intense that extra screenings had to be scheduled, it went on to win 11 international awards. Yet due to distribution problems rendering the film functionally unavailable for years, The Reflecting Skin is one of the best films you've probably never seen.
In post-World War II Idaho, Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) is 8 years old and leads a life full of fear. His parents are almost Amish in their rural simplicity. His father (Duncan Fraser) reads pulp vampire stories on the porch when he's not pumping gas for the local greaser gang. Seth's mother (Lindsay Duncan) could be the burnt-out shell of Wendy Torrance from The Shining.
For Seth, the barren sticks are a breeding ground for nightmares. When his nuclear family finally falls apart, Seth's older brother Cameron, played by a young Viggo Mortensen, returns home from the war. Physically, at least. Emotionally, he is distant until he becomes romantically involved with a woman Seth convinces himself is a vampire. As friends and family disintegrate, so does Seth's fragile sanity.
The Reflecting Skin was shot in the wheat fields of Alberta, Canada—which director Philip Ridley spray-painted yellow—the stark landscapes springing right out of his favorite paintings by Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. Cinematographer Dick Pope almost steals the show, except that behind the high-contrast beauty and vast landscapes are a dark story and a cast of characters out of the Old Testament.
Ridley's chops as a playwright and visual artist preceded The Reflecting Skin, his first feature. Thanks to his multimedia experience and auteur sensibilities, his screenwriting is up to the task of balancing the subtle with the grotesque. His quiver is full of surrealist images, but at no point is the viewer more truly at a loss than the 1990 film's lead character. Ridley's imaginary vision of a fire-and-brimstone gothic America is not far off from something Nick Cave might conjure. The first scene in the film—young boys exploding a bullfrog onto the local schoolmarm with a slingshot—is graphic enough to belong in a Crispin Glover experiment.
Here it becomes more than just an unforgettable image, though. Vampirism, child stealing, self-immolation, and desiccated angel babies keep things positively apocalyptic as Seth's world collapses around him. Ridley's pure gothic vibes translate to a bizarre deliciousness.
Despite its warm reception and Ridley's striking vision, this serious, strange film got lost. After its initial run on VHS in the U.K. and U.S. in the early '90s, The Reflecting Skin didn't see another release until 2005, when a Japanese widescreen DVD release quickly ran out of print. The film spent another 10 years in hibernation until a special Blu-ray edition was released in 2015. But it wasn't playable in the U.S. region, only adding to frustration for fans of this black gem.
Thanks to NW Film Center's new Magic & Loss series, the faithful and curious can finally see a 35 mm print of this wonder on the wide screen. If that doesn't sell you on The Reflecting Skin, just come to catch a glimpse of young Viggo Mortensen's ass.
SEE IT: The Reflecting Skin screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium on Sunday, March 12. 7 pm. $9.