March 14, 2016

Reflecting on Alberta’s strangest movie, 1990’s The Reflecting Skin

Eric Volmers / The Calgary Herald

It took roughly 30 seconds after an early screening of The Reflecting Skin at the renowned Cannes Film Festival for a French critic to neatly sum up the film’s fate.

It was in 1990 and British director Philip Ridley was getting ready to exit the theatre when a “leading French critic” grabbed him by the arm and said “Votre film est deja un cult,” which translates into the soundbite-worthy “Your film is already a cult.”

“He could just sense the vibe,” said Ridley, on the phone from his home in East London. “It had a bit of a buzz around it.”

The Reflecting Skin was a hit at Cannes. In fact, it tended to do well on the festival circuit in general, winning awards and raising eyebrows wherever it screened. A nightmarish coming-of-age film set in 1950s Idaho but shot amid the breathtaking beauty of southern Alberta, The Reflecting Skin was once described by its creator as “Blue Velvet with children.” And as with David Lynch’s perverse classic, it tended to inspire love-it-0r-hate-it debates when it finally made its way to the general public.

“I became giddy with the responses,” says Ridley. “I would go to screenings where people would be on their feet, giving it standing ovations and people would be screaming at me that it’s a disgrace and I should be ashamed of myself, all at the same time. I never quite knew where it was.”

If there was a ever a movie that could safely be called a “cult film,” it would be The Reflecting Skin, surely one of the strangest movies to ever emerge from the Alberta film industry. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. A good number didn’t know what to make of it at all. Over the years, the cult has only grown as it became nearly impossible to see. After a staggered theatrical run, it had a brief VHS release and then promptly disappeared. Various clips — often involving an exploding frog or a petrified fetus or menacing delinquents in a black Cadillac — would occasionally show up on YouTube. But it remained a difficult film to watch, both literally and figuratively.

Next week it will finally resurface in North America as a handsome Blu-ray/DVD reissue, newly remastered and restored and featuring commentary by Ridley, a behind-the-scenes documentary and new interviews with star Viggo Mortensen.

It was one of Mortensen’s first films, long before he achieved acclaim in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and A History of Violence and stardom as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But he wasn’t the only one getting his feet wet inside Ridley’s bizarre vision.

The late Les Kimber, a veteran Calgary production manager who had worked on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Richard Donner’s Superman, helped the young, first-time director put together a team that included many film workers who would go on to impressive careers in Alberta.

Calgary-based filmmaker Dave Schultz, who has directed films such as Rufus and 45 R.P.M., was Ridley’s assistant on set. Janice Blackie-Goodine signed on as an assistant set decorator, a few years before earning an Oscar nomination for her work on Unforgiven.

It was the first film for makeup artist Dave Trainor, who helped design the Reflecting Skin’s famous exploding frog and would go on to work on series such as Hell on Wheels and Fargo.

It was also an early feature for Rick Roberts, a veteran production designer and art director who has worked on Legends of the Fall, Unforgiven and nine seasons of CBC’s Heartland.

By his own account, Ridley was not a traditional director. In fact, with his exacting attention to visual detail and insistence that the film only be shot in the “magic hour” before sunset, he sometimes sounds like a more benign version of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the mercurial director who oversaw the troubled set of last year’s Oscar-winning, Alberta-shot epic, The Revenant.

Ridley was a painter and art-school student who had directed a few short films before being awarded funding from the BBC, among other sources, to shoot his debut. Several locations were scouted throughout the world. But when he saw pictures of southern Alberta near Crossfield, he became obsessed with the golden wheat fields and massive sky behind them. When two houses were found in the area that seemed ready-built for the needs of his strange screenplay, Ridley took it as a sign he was meant to shoot in Alberta.

So in 1989 he came to Wild Rose Country, armed with his own watercolour paintings and reproductions of the famous artwork of American painter Andrew Wyeth to use as references. He also had a spray can of yellow paint that he would apply to wheat he felt wasn’t quite right.

It became a rare opportunity for Alberta crews to work on something completely different, an art film in a province that was usually the setting for earnest historical epics and westerns.

“Philip was a bit of a wing nut, really out there creatively,” says Roberts. “So it was a great opportunity to create with him.”

As with the Revenant, much of the shoot consisted of slavish rehearsal to ensure everyone was prepared when those few hours arrived each day where the light was right. Roberts says he remembers Dick Pope, the renowned British cinematographer who was also in the early stages of his career, frantically beating down grass and bushes to prepare for a scene in the precious moments before the “magic hour.” He became known on set as “Sunset Dick.”

When Ridley visited Trainor at his shop to discuss that famous exploding frog, he offered some peculiar inspiration.

“He came to the shop with Rick Roberts,” said Trainor. “He didn’t talk so much about the frog as he did the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. He showed us the painting of the girl laying in the field (Christina’s World). He said, ‘When you’re making the frog, think of this.”

No frogs were harmed during the shooting of The Reflecting Skin. The fearfully large creature at the beginning of the film was on loan from a nearby reptile farm and replaced with Trainor’s replica before blowing up in a splatter of blood. That revolting scene sets the tone for a surreal and occasionally darkly comic plot. Our protagonist Seth Dove, played by wide-eyed Port Coquitlam actor Jeremy Cooper, uses a reed placed in the Frog’s anus to blow up the poor creature’s stomach. Seth and his friends wait until the mysterious Dolphin Blue (played by British actress Lindsay Duncan) wanders by before puncturing the bloated belly from afar with a slingshot and exploding its innards all over her face.

This cruel prank kicks off a plot that will eventually involve Seth’s unhinged mother (Sheila Moore). henpecked father (Duncan Fraser) and the return of older brother Cameron (played by a gaunt Mortensen). Cameron has been helping Uncle Sam test atom bombs in the South Pacific, an experience that has left him haunted and likely suffering from radiation poison. He falls in love with Dolphin Blue, an unwelcome turn of events for jealous Seth who is convinced the young widow is actually a vampire. Meanwhile, leather-jacketed delinquents in a black Cadillac terrorize the rural roads and are likely behind the mysterious deaths of two children, who happen to be Seth’s friends.

Needless to say, the film tended to shock those who saw the friendly Alberta skies on the movie poster and were expecting a coming-of-age movie along the lines of Stand By Me. As with any respectable cult film, critical reaction to the Reflecting Skin was decidedly mixed. Vincent Canby of the New York Times hated it. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone loved it, calling Ridley a “visionary” who “confronts us with our own primal fear of the dark.” On the old Siskel and Ebert show, the two critics sandwiched a review of The Reflecting Skin between ones for The Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear. Gene Siskel gave it a thumbs down, calling it “overloaded.” Roger Ebert disagreed, praising its “controlled tone” and talking at some length about why it was better than the work of David Lynch.

“A strange movie,” he said. “Horrible and funny in about equal measure.”

Ridley wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. He admits that he has trouble defining the film more than 25 years after he made it. Is it a coming-of-age drama? A Gothic horror tale? A twisted romance? Probably all of the above. Ridley has since made two more feature films, 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon and 2010’s Heartless. He also works in theatre, paints and write songs and poetry.

But while The Reflecting Skin was, up until recently, hard to find, Ridley said curiosity about it never dwindled. In fact, it only grew with the rise of the Internet.

“It’s the Luke Skywalker of feature films,” he says with a laugh. “Where is it? Is it a legend? The film disappeared so completely from cinemas and the VHS came and went and yet the memory in the minds of those who had seen it remained very strong. A whole cult fan base built up around the film. I was going around talking about other things and people would come up to me and say ‘Oh my God, The Reflecting Skin, where can we see it?’ This whole fan base started to grow up. It became almost a mythical film.”

The Reflecting Skin is available on Blue-Ray/DVD on March 15.