Sean Plummer / HMV.com
The Reflecting Skin is a true cult film. Written and directed by then-new British artist Philip Ridley, now an established playwright and children’s author, it’s a weird mash-up of horror, drama, whodunit, and arthouse about odd goings-on in the American prairies of the 1950s (actually Crossfield, Alberta).
It also features Viggo Mortenson in one of his first starring roles.
The future Aragorn plays Cameron Dove, a soldier slowly dying of radiation sickness who returns to his parents’ home after a stint in the Pacific. Cameron soon takes up with nearby widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) whom his younger brother Seth (Jeremy Cooper) is convinced is actually a vampire draining him of his life force.
It was released (barely) in 1990 after a controversial debut at Cannes that drew rave reviews… and some audience derision. It quickly left theatres, leaving behind a reputation for surreal oddness, including an opening scene involving children blowing up a frog. Since then it has had a spotty history on home media and has rarely been seen the way Ridley wanted people to see it.
But the Internet stoked its reputation through the ‘90s and ‘00s, uniting fans worldwide drawn to this strange kind-of vampire tale. Now, using newly discovered film elements, UK-Canadian film distributor Soda Pictures has cleaned it up and will release The Reflecting Skin in Canada on Blu-ray Tuesday (March 15th) with a host of new features.
hmv.com spoke to Ridley about spray-painting wheat, casting Mortenson, and whether or not he will ever make another film.
Congratulations on getting The Reflecting Skin out into the world again. How does it feel?
“It’s thrilling to have it back out there again, especially when I thought it would never happen. It was made in ‘89/‘90 – the days before digital. It only existed on celluloid. And no one knew where the materials were. It was a surprise to me that [Soda] managed to get the materials together to restore it in the first place. The last time I saw the film projected was at a festival in Italy in about 1999 – and that was one of only four or five prints that at that time were in existence – and that print looked pretty bad. It’s a film about the visual ravishment of cinema; it’s a film about images. So unless you’re seeing the film as you should be seeing it, you’re not getting the full experience.”
The Reflecting Skin defies categorization. That said, talk about the influences of horror on the film – whether it be film, literature or art.
“Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton is a pretty strong influence; the childhood pain and fairy-tale aspect. It’s also heavily influenced by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth who was one of my favourite artists when I was at art school. That was the visual touchstone of the film: somewhere between Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.
“Also [the novel] Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury and the novels of Philip K. Dick; this whole questioning of what is and isn’t reality. I think they kind of ripple through it. I can see certain horror films in there – Psycho, The Birds, and After Dark is definitely in there. It makes reference to them as well. It’s a very cinematically aware film. There’s an element of meta-cinema to it that it is quoting other films the whole time.”
Is it true you personally spray-painted the wheat fields to get the right colour?
“Absolutely true. A lot of the wheat you see Seth in, like the wheat that surrounds his house, was especially sown for us, because we did a lot of the locations much earlier and we had all these places set up as where we might end up. The land around the house was as you see in the film. All we had to do was cut away the path leading up to the house.
“But because it wasn’t normally a farmed area, there were bits of green foliage coming through. So the painting of the wheat started when I set up shop, to get rid of the green areas so it all looked completely yellow. Of course now that could be done digitally in post-production. But in those days it had to be done in camera.
“Anyway, I ended up liking the way the painted wheat looked more than the real wheat. So as the film went on I was painting more and more. I would turn up on the set about two hours before everyone else with buckets of paint. The two colours I used were cadmium yellow and Indian yellow. And it was acrylic and I’d mix them, and I would spray paint at least the front areas of the wheat fields; at least the bits that would be closest to the camera.
“When [Jeremy is] walking up to Dolphin Blue’s house, the reason he looks so nervous is because the wheat on either side of him is still wet with paint. He had to fit down a very narrow path to not get his clothes covered in yellow paint.”
The Reflecting Skin is one of Viggo Mortenson’s first films. Talk about casting and working with him.
“My memory of this is probably wrong, but the way that I remember it is I’d known [casting director] Vicky Thomas for a while so she knew what I was after. Viggo came in initially as someone that I should meet: ‘He’s an interesting actor, he’s your kind of actor. You should meet him.’
“We sent him some of the scenes, and my memory of it was ‘this guy is fantastic.’ I knew we were going to get on because I do other things – write poetry and take photographs – and Viggo does the same thing. I was staying in a hotel in Los Angeles, and Viggo came around to see me. And we got on like a house on fire from the moment he walked in the door. We couldn’t stop talking, we had so much in common. Luckily that’s happened to me three or four times: someone has walked through my door and I know I’m looking at a superstar. It hasn’t happened for them yet, but you know they’ve got something very, very special. The star charisma was just overwhelming. By the time we finished talking, he had to play Cameron.”
What’s one of the more interesting compliments you have received for The Reflecting Skin?
“Someone once told me they’ve watched the film many times, but never the exploding frog scene. They close their eyes when the children start inflating the frog, and they don’t open their eyes ‘til they know the scene is over. That just terrifies them so much and brings back so many awful, disturbing memories of childhood.
“That was the reaction when the film premiered at Cannes. Fifty percent of the audience got up and walked out the moment the frog exploded, which is within the first five minutes of the film. Of course what happened was those 50 percent left and said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this most outrageous opening to this film – three boys kill a frog’ and other people started to come in. So 50 percent left, but we were playing to 200 percent by the time we finished.”
You have only made two films since The Reflecting Skin and have mostly worked in theatre the last 25 years. Why?
“I still love making film, just very particular films. I always say I’m a very particular tree and I grow a very particular fruit, and it’s not especially mainstream or commercial. They’re not easy money-makers. I like to have a lot of control. I’ve had final cut on the three films that I’ve made to date. I’ve been able to cast them the way I’ve wanted, and with Heartless  I wrote some of the songs for them. So they’re quite private films, like personal artistic projects. I’m not disappointed or downhearted to have made only three films because they’re films I’ve wanted to make.
“I suppose what’s different from some other careers is that I don’t have that interspersed with 10 other films that I didn’t quite want to make. I’d still like to make another film, but I want to make the film that I want to make. So if I write a script I won’t do it unless I can do it the way I think it needs to be made.”