Jason Anderson / The Toronto Star
The Reflecting Skin: “Blue Velvet with children” is how British director Philip Ridley described his first feature. Given the limited commercial potential of a film that invests coming-of-age tropes and a classic Americana setting with David Lynch-calibre weirdness, it’s no surprise that The Reflecting Skin didn’t exactly catch fire with the masses upon its initial release in 1990.
In the years that followed, the film’s spotty availability on video and DVD also prevented it from garnering the cult following it deserved. Ridley’s promising film career would also peter out – he’s only made two more features in the 26 years since, though he’s kept busy as a visual artist and playwright. A new digital restoration for The Reflecting Skin and a Blu-ray release in March will hopefully rectify matters. But in the meantime, the Royal invites adventurous viewers to savour it on the big screen, which is the best place to see Ridley’s alternately gorgeous and gruesome slice of Prairie gothic.
Set in the 1950s in rural Idaho (it was actually shot in Calgary), the film stars Jeremy Cooper as Seth, an 8-year-old with a peculiar view of the world. Appearing here long before his sojourn in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, Viggo Mortensen makes a striking impression in the role of Seth’s older brother Cameron, a WWII vet who may have been irradiated during atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. Cameron’s bodily deterioration becomes just one element in a catalog of nightmarish imagery that includes an exploding frog, a lady vampire, an ossified fetus and some menacing young men in a black Cadillac. What it all means is a mystery but few films capture the lurking terrors and simmering tensions of childhood quite so acutely.
The Reflecting Skin runs Feb. 26-March 9 at the Royal.