The Reflecting Skin

The Reflecting Skin

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Philip Ridley
Produced by Dominic Anciano
Ray Burdis
Written by Philip Ridley
Music by Nick Bicât
Cinematography Dick Pope
Edited by Scott Thomas
Distributed by Virgin Vision (UK)
Miramax Films (US)
Release dates
  • 9 September 1990 (1990-09-09) (Toronto)
  • 9 November 1990 (1990-11-09) (UK)
Running time
95 minutes[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $1.5 million

The Reflecting Skin is a 1990 British-Canadian horror film written and directed by Philip Ridley and starring Jeremy Cooper, Viggo Mortensen and Lindsay Duncan. Described by its director as a "mythical interpretation" of childhood,[2] the film weaves elements of vampirism, Surrealism, black comedy, and religious zealotry throughout its narrative about the perceptions and fantasies of an impressionable young boy in 1950s America. The film places the majority of its action outdoors around the dilapidated farms and in the wheat fields of Idaho shot in idyllic sunlight which belies the dark secrets of the characters and plot.


Eight year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) lives in an isolated American prairie community in the 1950s. The film opens with Seth and his friends Eben and Kim, playing with a frog Seth has found in the fields. The boys inflate the frog by inserting a reed up its anus and leave it by the side of the road. When a local English widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) stops to inspect it, Seth shoots the inflated frog with a slingshot, causing it to explode over Dolphin.

Seth retreats back to the small gas station where he lives with his harridan mother Ruth (Sheila Moore) and shy father Luke (Duncan Fraser). Seth’s older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), is away on military service in the Pacific (Ruth refers to them as "the pretty islands"). Seth serves gas to a mysterious group of young men driving a black Cadillac, who promise to see him again soon and drive off.

Seth is sent to Dolphin’s house to apologise for the frog prank. Dolphin is haunted by the memory of her dead husband, who hung himself for unknown reasons a week after their wedding. Surrounded by artifacts from her husband’s family’s whaling past, Seth takes some of her self-pitying remarks (she claims to be "two hundred years old") literally, and after learning about vampires from his father, who is reading a novel on that theme, Seth surmises that Dolphin must be a vampire.

After Eben goes missing, Seth and Kim go to Dolphin’s house to investigate, because Seth believes she is responsible for Eben's disappearance. The boys excitedly demolish Dolphin’s bedroom belongings, and run from the house screaming after spying on her masturbating. Seth runs home, and later finds Eben’s dead body floating in the water cistern. The local authorities believe Luke is responsible, because of a homosexual indiscretion years previously; believing himself to be doomed, Luke douses himself with petrol and incinerates himself.

Cameron returns home to look after Seth, as Ruth has become shell-shocked following Luke’s death. Whilst visiting his grave, Cameron meets Dolphin, and romance sparks between the two, much to Seth’s horror. In a nearby barn, Seth and Kim discover an ossified dead fetus, which Seth believes to be Eben incarnate as a fallen angel and takes home with him. The next day, Seth follows Cameron to Dolphin’s house, where he observes Cameron emotionally confessing to Dolphin his culpability in atomic bomb experiments. Cameron and Dolphin begin to make love; running in terror from the house, Seth witnesses the men in the Cadillac abducting Kim.

Cameron’s body begins to deteriorate from radiation sickness, which Seth attributes to Dolphin's supposed vampirism. Kim’s body is discovered the next day, and law enforcement authorities still believe that Luke is alive and responsible. As Cameron and Dolphin grow closer and plot to run away together, Seth focuses his rage at Dolphin, and after consulting with the fetus "angel", orchestrates Dolphin being led away by the men in the black Cadillac. The next morning, Dolphin’s body is found, and Cameron breaks down into tears. Realising the reality of what he has done, Seth runs to a nearby field and, overwhelmed with guilt and grief, screams at the setting sun.



Philip Ridley was inspired to write the screenplay for The Reflecting Skin after completing a sequence of artworks titled American Gothic whilst studying at St Martin’s School of Art. "I read a lot of American literature when I was a child growing up and saw a lot of American films so what I did, particularly in The Reflecting Skin, is that I created a fabulous child-eyed view of what I imagined America to be like - it's a kind of mythical once upon a time never-world, where guys look like Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, and everything is set in a Wheatfield and it all looks very American gothic." [3] Upon directing two short films (Visiting Mr Beak and The Universe Of Dermot Finn) and completing the screenplay for The Krays (directed by Peter Medak), Ridley received $1.5 million of funding from the BBC, British Screen and Zenith Productions to shoot The Reflecting Skin in Crossfield, Alberta, Canada.

In collaboration with director of photography Dick Pope, Ridley channelled his artistic influences (including Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper) to create a hyper-realised vision of a "mythical, hallucinogenic summer in the life of a child."[3] This extended to Ridley personally spray-painting the wheatfields a brighter shade of yellow, and shooting exterior scenes at ‘magic hour’, "when the sun was at its most intense and golden." The film also features Viggo Mortensen in one of his first starring roles.

Critical reception

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990, where the critics declared it "deja un culte" ("already a cult") before they’d even left the auditorium.[4] The word of mouth about the film, particularly the notorious ‘exploding frog’ opening, was so intense that extra screenings had to be scheduled in order to cater to demand.[3] It went on to win 11 international awards at other film festivals and was picked up for distribution in the US by the then-fledgling Miramax.

Although some critics were outraged by the film’s "abnormal situations and morbid characters",[5] among the more prominent admirers of the film was Roger Ebert, who said it "reminded me of Blue Velvet and the other works of David Lynch, but I think it’s better… it’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it."[6] Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote that "Ridley is a visionary, and his haunting film, luminously shot by Dick Pope, exerts a hypnotic pull." [7] Kevin Thomas in the LA Times called it "an amazing film, studded with selfless, luminous performances and shot through with dark humor, that risks sheer over-the-top outrageousness at every turn but is so simultaneously inspired and controlled that it gets away with everything."[8]

The film has been reappraised in recent years as "one of the essential art film/horror hybrids from the past few decades."[9] Reviewing the 2015 restoration for Twitchfilm, Jason Gorber described it as a "strange, at times wonderful film, one that leaves more questions open than answers. Its palate and performances collide in ways that seem unique decades on."[10] Writing for The Guardian, Rowan Righelato described it as "stunningly beautiful… a gothic masterpiece that is often strangely overlooked."[11] Reviewing the special edition Blu-Ray on BBC News, Mark Kermode said "Philip Ridley is an extraordinary filmmaker... A really strange, interesting, disturbing, weird piece of work that has found its audience over the years. That's what a proper cult film looks like."[12]


At the 1990 Locarno International Film Festival, Ridley won three awards, C.I.C.A.E. Award, the FIPRESCI Prize, and Silver Leopard. At the 1990 "Sitges" Catalonian International Film Festival, Lindsay Duncan won the Best Actress award and Dick Pope the award for Best Cinematography. At the 1990 Stockholm Film Festival, Ridley received the FIPRESCI Prize.

Home media

The film was unavailable on home video for many years following its initial VHS release in the UK or USA. A widescreen DVD was released in Japan in 2005, but quickly went out of print, leaving only a poor-quality German Blu-Ray and a fullframe American DVD release from Echo Bridge Entertainment as the only available releases for many years.[13]

Lionsgate announced The Reflecting Skin on DVD.

In 2015, it was announced that UK distributor Soda Pictures would release the film in a limited Blu-Ray Steelbook edition on November 30, 2015, featuring a new director-approved HD remaster, director’s commentary, two new documentaries, Philip Ridley’s early short films (Visiting Mr. Beak and The Universe of Dermot Finn) as well as a personally signed art card of his painting Fetal Blossom which was one of the artworks that inspired the film.[14] The distributor later released a standard edition Blu-Ray and DVD of the film on 14 March 2016, containing all the features of the limited edition except for the signed art card or steelbook packaging.[15][16]


  1. "THE REFLECTING SKIN (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 1990-04-04. Retrieved 2013-05-25.
  2. Clarke, Jeremy (June 1990). "Grisly Ridley". ThirdWay.
  3. 1 2 3 Ridley, Philip (1997). The American Dreams: The Reflecting Skin & The Passion Of Darkly Noon. London, UK: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-71140-4.
  4. Ridley, Philip (2015). The Pitchfork Disney. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-4725-1400-4.
  5. "Review: 'The Reflecting Skin'". Variety.
  6. "At The Movies: Terminator 2, Naked Gun 2 1/2, Europa Europa (1991)".
  7. Travers, Peter (1990). "The Reflecting Skin". Rolling Stone.
  8. Thomas, Kevin (December 18, 1991). "MOVIE REVIEW : 'Skin' Is More Tragic Than Bizarre". LA Times.
  9. Thompson, Nathaniel. "Mondo Digital: "The Reflecting Skin"". Mondo Digital.
  10. Gorber, Jason (July 22, 2015). "Fantasia 2015 Review: 25 Years On, THE REFLECTING SKIN Remains A Wonder". Twitchfilm.
  11. Righelato, Rowan (30 August 2013). "Why I love … frog-blood splattered Lindsay Duncan in The Reflecting Skin". The Guardian.
  12. Kermode, Mark (27 Nov 2015). "The Film Review". BBC iPlayer.
  13. Thompson, Nathaniel. "Mondo Digital: "The Reflecting Skin"". Mondo Digital. Retrieved 2015-11-30.
  14. "THE REFLECTING SKIN to make hi-def debut with ultra-limited Blu-Ray edition".

External links

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