The Reflecting Skin

It's not your average vampire movie; this one's got aspirations. Philip Ridley, the British painter-illustrator-novelist who turned screenwriter with the mesmerizing 1990 gangster film The Krays, debuts as a director with a perversely alluring work he describes as "Blue Velvet with children."

Ridley's script revolves around Seth Dove (a superb Jeremy Cooper), an eight-year-old growing up in the Fifties on the Idaho prairie (the film was shot in Canada). Seth's mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), is strict with him, doting only on her older son, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), a soldier on an atomic-testing mission in the Pacific. Ruth barely tolerates her husband, Luke (Duncan Fraser), a mechanic shamed by a past scandal in which the local sheriff found him and an underage boy "in full embrace."

Luke reads pulp novels, one with a cover illustration of a woman vampire that the impressionable Seth thinks is their English neighbor, Dolphin Blue (the smashing Lindsay Duncan). Dolphin's been a recluse since her husband's suicide. But when Seth and his pals -- Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee) and Kim (Evan Hall) -- play a nasty trick on Dolphin, Ruth forces Seth to apologize. Dolphin's house, filled with whaling gear, fascinates Seth. Later, he watches her masturbate.

Seth's sexual fears are soon heightened by violence. Eben is found drowned. When Luke is accused, he torches himself. Then Kim is murdered. Seth has seen four men driving around in a black Caddy, but he suspects only Dolphin, who has now taken up with his brother, home for their father's funeral. Some of this arty Freudian posturing about a boy's head-on collision with sex, sin and death is ponderous. But Ridley is a visionary, and his haunting film, luminously shot by Dick Pope, exerts a hypnotic pull. Through a child's eyes, Ridley confronts us with our own primal fear of the dark.

From The Archives Issue 608: July 11, 1991