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 Skin – Gummo, 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.