The Reflecting Skin (1990)

There are only a few films I could cite that touch on the exact discomforting horrors of childhood explored in the 1990 curio The Reflecting SkinGummo, Tideland, Heavenly Creatures, Welcome to the Dollhouse, maybe certain aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth. None come anywhere near predating this forgotten indie cinema relic, yet they’ve each garnered more notoriety for their willingness to Go There when it comes to discomforting childhood fears, violence, and psychosexuality. I presume that’s mostly because no one really knew what to do with The Reflecting Skin in 1990, a sentiment I can confidently echo nearly thirty years later. The film was met with exuberant applause & demands for additional screenings when it debuted at Cannes, but it’s since faded into cultural obscurity due to a shamefully spotty history of physical media distribution. Thanks to a new digital restoration of the film for its first-ever Blu-Ray release, I was lucky to catch it completely blind at the local arthouse venue Zeitgeist, wholly unprepared for the haunted curio cabinet I’d be stumbling through for 90 intensely uncomfortable minutes. It felt like plucking a cursed book from a dusty library shelf and unknowingly releasing something wicked that was deliberately forgotten for the sake of humanity’s safety.

There’s a kind of protective innocence to the premise of The Reflecting Skin that doesn’t fully convey its antagonistically perverse tone. In the film, a young boy who lives at his family’s rural 1950s gas station creates an intricate series of fantasies to help soften the horrors of the insular world he occupies. Confused why his father is a local pariah, why his brother (Viggo Mortensen in his debut film role) is prematurely fading into illness, and why his snot-nosed peers are showing up dead around town, the child creates a fantasy scenario where his young, widowed neighbor is a vampire that’s draining the community of its vitality by literally draining its blood. The audience is never fooled by this illusion, as the widow in question (although stylistically a precursor to Tilda Swinton’s turn in Only Lovers Left Alive) is clearly just a young woman racked with grief. Still, our twisted little POV character’s interpretation of the world around him is even more of a shock without the possibility of a supernatural threat supporting it. We know exactly why the children around him are dying, why his family is being ostracized from the local community, and what’s haunting his “war hero” brother. Seeing those harsh realities clash with equally harsh fantasies never gets easier as the film goes on, especially since the fantasies only encourage our devious little protagonist to behave more monstrously as they spiral out of control.

The POV character of The Reflecting Skin is a chipper little devil in an off-putting bowl cut. He’s endlessly cruel in the way a lot of bored, unsupervised children can be – gleefully tormenting all helpless animals in his striking distance as a form of escapist entrainment, whether they be a grieving widow or a pathetic bull fog. His instinct when he encounters something precious or beautiful in his grimly dour environment is to immediately destroy it beyond recognition, an instinct the film generally frames as the commanding ethos of humanity & Nature. This destructive impulse and the hopeless cruelty of Life are discussed in flat, stage play-style dialogue, a tone accentuated by the nonprofessional child actors who are tasked to deliver it. Phrases like, “Innocence can be hell,” and “The nightmare of childhood . . . and then it only gets worse,” hang in the air like a black-magic curse over the sparse setting. Characters’ fixation on animalistic details like scent, skin, and thirst take on a literary importance that contextualizes its vampiric lore in a distinctly Southern Gothic tradition. The children of The Reflecting Skin are creepily obsessed with the mortality, sexuality, violent perversions, and biological limitations of adulthood in a way that confuses them, weaponizes them, and makes them vulnerable for exploitation. And when they grow up, it only gets worse. It’s an absolutely brutal worldview that no amount of escapist fantasy could ever fully cover up.

The oil painting-reminiscent wheat fields of this film’s farmland setting have since become such common cinematic language that it’s now considered a memeable cliché (usually at the expense of Terrence Malick). Its stage play dialogue and flat child-acting limitations could also be a major barrier for modern audience to fight past. I personally found both to be appropriately harsh, sparse backdrops for the film’s brutal worldview, in which life is a punishing force of destruction that deliberately targets the most beautiful & fragile things among us. Children, women, queer people, and sensitive men are squashed like bugs for the crime of existing, and the only thing protecting them from total annihilation is a romantic fantasy that can crumble at any moment. The worst part is that they can be just as guilty of passing that cruelty along as much as anyone else. The Reflecting Skin might be too cruel, too cynical, too stilted, and too stylized to strike a chord with everyone who stumbles into its nightmarish childhood fantasy unprepared (our screening did have at least one ceremonial walk-out midway through), but if you can fully sink into the hellish wavelength it establishes the experience is unforgettably unnerving. I watched it with my jaw agape for most of its runtime, as if it were a forbidden displeasure the world had meant to protect me from by burying it in several decades of obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet