In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
“Pa, what’s a vampire?”
“Well, they bite your neck. Drink your blood. Stuff like that. Not very sociable. They have to do it because otherwise they’d get old. They do it to stay young.”
“Any vampires ’round these parts, Pa?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised.”
Casual flirtations with danger are critical to childhood, at least if you have any intention of surviving it. Your first conscious awareness of your heart as a battering ram introduces you to your body’s regimented two-party system of fight or flight. Then, you catalog the cavalcade of choices before you. In our earliest years — and our later ones, too, for the myopic among us — any decision we make is solely in the present moment. Any consequence — punitive, self-endured, passed-along, fatal — rests in the mind like an amorphous abstraction. If we sense anything definitive in our childhood decisions, it’s a dichotomous endpoint: This will turn out good or bad. We will know happiness or disappointment. We will feel excited or bored. We will win or we will lose. Framing any of this as a destination implies an awareness of the journey we don’t yet have (or again, for the older and myopic, refusing to acknowledge any sort of journey has taken place).
And yet the choices of greatest consequence remain with us, even when we make them as children and don’t fully understand them. The best ones will complete us. The worst ones consume us, both slowly and all at once in a slow-motion flattening of time. We might reject this incontrovertible truth when we face it. But we all face it. It could be when we’re 80 and the grave calls close. Or as it is for Seth Dove — who blows right past flirtation with danger into full-blown courtship in writer-director Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin — you discover it when you’re 8.
As played by Jeremy Cooper, Seth’s malevolence is not some precocious perversion or the mannered behavior of a full-blown Bad Seed sociopath. That would make Seth’s decisions too easily written off as an aberration or an anomaly of how young kids are supposed to behave. Seth’s choices are encoded in a vacillation between ennui and excitement that feels distinct to boys — always eager to slay something even if it is, as it goes for Seth, a dragon of his own creation. Seth’s conviction that a mysterious woman living in his barely populated early-1950s Idaho hamlet is actually a vampire doesn’t blossom into a coming-of-age story rooted in cute misunderstanding or a proscriptive lesson for adults to listen to boys who cry wolf. It’s something darker, more primal and more easily understood. Seth’s descent is one into a very American imagination of violence — defined less by actions he takes than those he allows to happen, cheap and fleeting thrills that begin with an exploding frog and end with the essential eradication of everything he loves. Sound akin to anything toward which we’re teetering these days?
An artistic polymath, Ridley went on to make two more feature films (The Passion of Darkly Noon and Heartless) but has more greatly pushed on in realms of theatre, poetry, prose, songwriting and visual arts. He conceived of The Reflecting Skin as a gothic expression of paintings from America that he saw while studying at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. “It was a fabulous child-eyed view of what I imagined America to be like,” Ridley later wrote. “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 wheat field and it all looks very American gothic.” After writing an acclaimed screenplay for director Peter Medak’s The Krays, Ridley received $1.5 million from the BBC to shoot Skin. From the encroaching desolation of Dick Pope’s cinematography to the mellifluous and mournful orchestration of Nick Bicât’s score, everything about Skin is amplified to the point of explosivity like the fat frog that sets everything off here. (Canada stands in for the States here in shots so hyper-stylized that Ridley is said to have personally spray-painted said wheat fields to make them pop with brighter shades of yellow.)
The traps for any foreign filmmaker’s vision of America are both the easily dismissed tut-tutting of an outsider looking in and the embrace of shopworn cliches. Ridley deftly avoids that by rendering all of his characters unable to articulate even the most basic ills of the society in which they live — even when said ills could hardly seem clearer. Taken in plain sight, Skin is Americana. In spirit, it’s a tough story about America, wisely deromanticizing tired notions of nobility and grit in hardscrabble poverty and stubborn ignorance; the unexplained appearance of a stillborn fetus suggests that the sadness and secrecy of these allegedly great times are hardly limited to the characters we come to know here. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for spitfires like the one-handed, one-eyed Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons), who both delivers cold graveside comfort and spews hot interrogative fire, or his poker-faced deputy (David Bloom), uttering lines like “There’s a short leap between kissin’ and killin’.” Skin can’t help but play with dog-eared pulp at its center, symbolized by a vampire novel inspiring Seth’s insistence that Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), a bereaved widow alone in her house, is actually a centuries-old bloodsucker.
Dolphin’s home seems to have landed like an alien spacecraft of its own accord. The only exterior sign of habitation is a wheat-field walkway cut like a swath to its front door. Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina’s World is the clear inspiration here, standing in similar solitude on the landscape as that painting’s house; although there is no direct analog to the outstretched yearning, loneliness and despondency of that painting’s subject, Duncan embodies it in a performance that treats any fleeting moments of laughter, lust or liveliness as distractions along the way to the grave. “Sometimes terrible things happen quite naturally,” she says, summing up the film’s thesis with a sigh. (Spoiler alert: Dolphin isn’t a vampire. But you knew that already.)
Dolphin’s lust, such as it is, emerges with the return of Seth’s older brother, Cameron — played by Viggo Mortensen in one of his earliest roles and as young as this old soul ever looked. Cameron’s military service is enshrined in the Dove household, where the second of the film’s five tragedies brings him home. Could Seth have prevented what happens to bring Cameron home? Maybe not in the long run, but neither does he act on a first-hand opportunity to do so — instead gazing in wide-eyed wonder at how desperation takes over someone haunted by shame and scorn they thought they’d set aside. When Cameron comes ambling down the Doves’ long county road, Seth can’t stop babbling excitedly about the resulting carnage — like it was a radio play he heard while huddled under a blanket well past his bedtime.
That’s in contrast to Cameron, internalized and taciturn after participating in the Pacific theater of World War II. Cameron relates tales of atomized fish and snowball fights with ashes of the dead, but only to Dolphin, in whom he recognizes a brokenness but also someone with whom to trade even the smallest sliver of tenderness. When discussing his wartime travails with Seth, Cameron can only respond by describing a trio of photographs he carried with him across his campaign — a brighter-days photo of the two brothers, an anonymous pin-up girl and a Japanese girl burned by an atomic aftermath. As underplayed by Mortensen, this is Cameron’s effort to introduce Seth to the hardened world outside their hamlet, where kids proudly run around in hero worship with an American flag as a cape — perhaps even inoculate him to it. But all that Seth can see is red over Cameron’s increased interest in Dolphin, Cameron’s deepening impatience with Seth and Cameron’s inability to see that all Dolphin really wants to do is drink his blood. Certainty breeds contempt. Contempt breeds choices. Choices breed consequences.
A sappier version would hinge on Dolphin’s declaration to Seth that “If you love, you’ll still be loved.” It would also avoid the apocalyptic ending, framed by Ridley and Pope like a nuclear cloudburst immolating whatever last shred of innocence Seth may have had. The last sound heard is screaming. It’s not subtle. Why should it be? Our tendencies toward self-annihilation haven’t been across the 70 years that have passed since when Skin takes place. The real prayer from Dolphin that lingers is “Innocence can be hell.” Skin is not really a jeremiad or plea for us to reverse these tendencies so much as it is a weary nod that they always burble. The final shot indicates Seth’s choices will consume him — the individual vampire-slaying legacy he had dreamed up for himself curdled into a reality of rage for which there is no vessel but everyone else. Just another anonymous victim in the collective of American animosity.