“THE REFLECTING SKIN”— A Dark American Dream


 A Dark American Dream

Amos Lassen

“The Reflecting Skin” was an instant cult classic when it premiered to sold out screenings at Cannes in 1990 and it is a darkly humorous, nightmarish vision of the American dream. 

Mysterious deaths plague a small prairie town in 1950s Idaho and eight year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) believes that Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), the reclusive English widow living next door, is a vampire who steals the souls of his neighborhood friends one by one. When his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) returns home from military service and falls in love with the widow, Seth is totally distressed and worried that Cameron could  be her next victim? 

“The Reflecting Skin” is not an average vampire movie. if it is a vampire movie. Most people easily label it a psychological horror film but it  is not a film that is easily pigeonholed. It appears to be a film about the trauma of growing up and more importantly, growing up with a dysfunctional family that is haunted by their past. The plot is told in a series of twisted events.

The film was the directorial debut of Philip Ridley, a British painter-illustrator-novelist and it was celebrated as one of the unique films of its year and received a good deal of favorable reviews. Seth’s mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), is an unhappy woman who obsessively cleans her home, trying to get rid of the smell of petrol, which Seth’s father (Duncan Fraser) carries with him because of working at a small gas station nearby. Ruth doesn’t think much of her youngest son but speaks highly of her oldest Cameron, a soldier back from his military duty in the Pacific. Dad, on the other hand, is a loving father, who, unfortunately, has a shameful dark secret. At one point, he tells Seth a story about vampires and the prairie boy becomes convinced that a pale, young widowed neighbor named Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), is, in fact, a bloodsucker. Seth’s slow descent into madness is intensified by some truly horrific events that unfold shortly after. For Seth, the world of childhood is dark and twisted: His friends are molested and murdered, his tormented father douses himself in gasoline and then sets himself on fire before his eyes and his half-crazy mother abuses him. Meanwhile, his beloved brother returning from World War II is suffering from radiation sickness and doesn’t know it. Life is not good for Seth.

 “The Reflecting Skin” is part horror story, and part coming of age tale. It is a true American Gothic,  shot from the point of view of the impressionable Seth and crammed with twisted religious symbolism. Ridley is said to have conceived of the idea for the film when he was reading “Alice in Wonderland and studying the paintings by Andrew Wyeth. The influence of Lewis Carroll is evident with its hyper-imaginative child roaming about what appears to be a dark fairy tale; meanwhile Wyeth is even more apparent in the overall aesthetic. The Reflecting Skin is many things, and one of the most beautiful and most intriguing films of the 1990’s due to the stunning cinematography from the legendary Dick Pope. The breathtakingly blue skies, shots of golden wheat fields and beautiful landscapes are a strong contrast to the bleak story.

I was also amazed at how each of the five main characters are painstakingly detailed and drawn – from learning about Dolphin’s husband’s suicide, and her ongoing fascination with destruction  to understanding why Seth’s mother is clearly unbalanced, and likely clinically depressed to the father’s secret past and to hints that Cameron is psychologically and physically wounded and scarred from his time spent overseas.

Death is visible everywhere, from the dead bodies piling up, to the black Cadillac that roams the countryside abducting the young boys, a rather obvious, symbol of death as well. Cameron asks Seth, ”Why aren’t you off playing with your friends?” To which Seth responds quite matter-of-factly, “All my friends are dead.”

The film is pessimistic and offers absolutely no hope or any sort of happiness for anyone. Ridley fills each frame with metaphors that boil just below the surface, but what it all means is left for the viewer to decide. In the final reel, Seth is seen running as fast as he can through the golden fields. It soon becomes evident that no matter how fast he runs, he has nowhere to go. You can’t escape death, and in the end, we are all just rotting away. And in the end, Dolphin, who is seen almost always wearing black is found dead, cloaked in white – as if, dying was the release she needed to break free from the horrors of her everyday existence. Perhaps we are all vampires, sucking the life out of from one another, day to day.


  • Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of The Reflecting Skin(running time: 44 minutes)
  • Commentary with writer/director Philip Ridley
  • Booklet with introduction by Philip Ridley and new essay by Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche

About Film Movement

Founded in 2002 as one of the first-ever subscription film services with its DVD-of-the-Month club, Film Movement is now a North American distributor of award-winning independent and foreign films based in New York City. It has released more than 250 feature films and shorts culled from prestigious film festivals worldwide.  Film Movement’s theatrical releases include American independent films, documentaries, and foreign art house titles. Its catalog includes titles by directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrzej Wajda, Diane Kurys, Ciro Guerra and Melanie Laurent. In 2015, Film Movement launched its reissue label Film Movement Classics, featuring new restorations released theatrically as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, including films by such noted directors as Eric Rohmer, Peter Greenaway, Bille August, Marleen Gorris, Takeshi Kitano, Arturo Ripstein, King Hu, Sergio Corbucci and Ettore Scola. For more information, please visit www.filmmovement.com. Visit www.filmmovementplus.com for more information about Film Movement Plus, the new subscription streaming service from Film Movement.

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