Color, 1990, 95m.
Directed by Philip Ridley
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper, Sheila Moore, Duncan Fraser
Soda Pictures (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Intergroove (Blu-Ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Wint (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Echo Bridge (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
Color, 1990, 95m.
In a 1950s Midwestern town surrounded by wheat fields, young Seth Dove (Cooper) and his friends pass the time by playing nasty tricks on their widowed neighbor, Dolphin (Duncan), like inflating a frog and exploding it all over her when she's walking home. One by one Seth's buddies are being snatched up by what appears to be a child murderer, and the police point the finger at the boy's father (Fraser) who responds by setting himself ablaze. Seth concludes through Dolphin's erratic behavior that she's actually a vampire, and when his older brother Cameron (Mortensen) returns home and begins sleeping with her, Seth's childhood perceptions become even more twisted. Meanwhile a trio of teens cruise the area in their ominous black Cadillac, and no one who hops inside ever seems to emerge alive...
One of the essential art film/horror hybrid from the past few decades, The Reflecting Skin was the directorial debut of English writer Philip Ridley, who had previously scripted The Krays and turned out a string of successful children's books. Since then he's directed only two films, The Passion of Darkly Noon and Heartless, both of which are absolutely worth tracking down. Because this film is "weird" and has a gorgeous visual style, most critics lumped it in with David Lynch; however, that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. If anything it's more like a hybrid between The Company of Wolves and The Night of the Hunter (even quoting a scene from the former when Seth and company discover an ossified fetus in their barn), mixing the naive and the terrifying into a stew of symbolism that will either leave viewers entranced or laughing hysterically. Either reaction is probably valid, but the combination of those two films sounds tasty, chances are you'll enjoy this one, too. What's indisputable is the fact that this is one amazing film to watch and hear; the cinematography by Dick Pope (who oddly went on to shoot another Krays film, Legend) delivers one amazing painterly image after another, while the soaring, unforgettable orchestral score by the underrated Nick Bicât (Wetherby) should have been a calling card to bigger and better things. The one minor flaw here is the uneven central performance by Cooper; while one is usually inclined to give kids a pass when it comes to stylized films like this, the psychological and emotional weight demanded by his role proves to be too much in some scenes and most notably comes up short in the final scene. That minor quibble aside, the film comes very close to classic status and richly deserves its small but dedicated cult following.
Unfortunately fans of the film have had to put up with a lot of mistreatment over the years. The Reflecting Skin was released by Miramax during its pre-Disney period in the same year they unleashed The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Their piecemeal video deals resulted in titles scattering all over the place, with Live Home Video (remember them?) issuing it on VHS and laserdisc in a really poor, fuzzy transfer, with Virgin following suit on VHS only in the UK. Since then it was nearly impossible for most English-speaking viewers to see until a much-needed anamorphic DVD finally surfaced in Japan from Wint. Unfortunately it's interlaced (which wreaks havoc with the many dolly shots in the film), and their subsequent Blu-ray isn't much of an improvement. Meanwhile in Germany, Intergroove released it with a German dub only on DVD but wisely reinstated the original English track (with optional German subs) for their 2010 Blu-ray (both reportedly not officially licensed), which sounds fine (if a little confined to the front and center for a supposed 5.1 mix). Unfortunately the transfer is mostly a mess, obviously a very grainy 35mm print that's been slathered in artificial noise reduction that results in a visual texture awash in softened grain that can charitably be described as "splotchy." The only extra is an unrelated German short film, "Echos," which has no English options but appears to be about two female roommates in a very sinister situation. Even worse, Americans only got the film on DVD in 2012 from Echo Bridge as a bargain bin release yanked from the old VHS-era master, and it looks just as awful as you'd expect. The same transfer was also thrown into an 8-film horror pack alongside titles like Office Killer and Stuart Gordon's The Pit and the Pendulum.
Five years later, the film finally received a much-needed restoration to its original luster from Soda Pictures, with a new 2K scan released to Blu-ray coinciding with theatrical screenings in the UK. Needless to say, it's a welcome sight to finally have the film in pristine quality and the presentation outclasses the 1990 theatrical prints by a mile as well. Virtually the entire film is flooded with sunlight or warm interior lighting, so the film grain is kept to a fine sheen throughout with the image displaying a rich, often deliberately softened texture throughout. The LPCM stereo track sounds excellent throughout (with optional English subtitles), and as a very nice bonus, an isolated music score track is included as well; the bulk of the soundtrack was sold only as mp3s via Bicât's official site, but it's great to have it here in higher quality. The third audio option here is a new audio commentary by Ridley, who remembers seemingly every single detail about the production in great detail and shares a lot of stories ranging from the difficulty of wrangling a huge African bullfrog for a single long shot in the film's opening (don't worry, no animals were actually harmed during production) through the stroke of good luck that allowed the crew to capture that striking sunset imagery in the last scene. He wisely sticks mostly to production stories and doesn't try to offer much interpretation for the film's mysteries, which is as it should be.
Along with the commentary, the disc comes loaded with additional extras including a pair of new featurettes. "Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of The Reflecting Skin" is a thorough 43-minute look back at the making of the film with Ridley, Pope, Mortensen, and Bicât covering it in more detail including its visual influences (such as Andrew Wyeth), the original title (American Gothic), and the timeless nature of the film's story and visual style. The 16-minute "Dreaming Darkly" covers the rest of Ridley's output including his other two features, with Ridley, Mortensen, and Bicât covering the additional projects they made together. It'll also make you really, really wish someone would release a good widescreen version of The Passion of Darkly Noon, which has also fared very poorly on home video so far. Two of Ridley's early short films are also included, with optional intros by the director: "Visiting Mr. Beak" (1987, 21 mins.) and "The Universe of Dermot Finn" (1988, 11 mins.), both of which are rite of passage stories of male youths laced with heavy doses of magic realism. The first film is taken from the only source available, a dupey VHS copy, while the second sports a nicer film transfer (apart from the opening and closing titles, taken from a lesser source), and it holds up quite well. Other extras include separate galleries of stills (tons of photos by Douglas Curran) and poster and video art, plus the original and reissue trailers and bonus Soda Pictures ones for Jauja, By Our Selves, and Only Lovers Left Alive. As of this writing, the Blu-ray is available exclusively as a steelbook directly through Zavvi in a limited edition complete with a signed Philip Ridley art card.