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Horror as Folk: The Nightmare of Childhood in The Reflecting Skin (1990)

This month, we’re taking a break from the All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set from Severin to talk about a movie that I think makes an interesting companion piece with Celia (1989), which we discussed last time. The Reflecting Skin is a film that has been on my radar for a long time, and I just now finally watched it thanks to its recent appearance on Tubi.

I don’t remember where I first encountered discussion of this early-career flick starring Viggo Mortensen (was he really ever this young?), but I had heard little besides superlatives and it’s pretty obvious why this was recommended to me so much. Like Celia, The Reflecting Skin feels of a piece with Guillermo del Toro’s early Spanish-language films, even while it is also dramatically different from them in important ways.

Just as the title character of Celia was flawed in a way that Del Toro has never allowed his child characters to be, everything in The Reflecting Skin is shot through with an abject cruelty that only villains ever exhibit in Del Toro films. Here, the adults are virtually all deranged, preoccupied with their own troubles and obsessions and seemingly blithely unaware of the impact that their actions are having on the children around them, specifically impressionable, 8-year-old Seth Dove, our main character, who appears to also be a budding sociopath.

When we are introduced to Seth, he and two of his friends are killing a frog for fun as part of a cruel prank that they’re playing on a neighbor woman. It’s not exactly an endearing way to meet your protagonist. Yet, at the same time, it sets up the world of blind viciousness that Seth inhabits – a world where childish cruelty is only a microcosmic reflection of the cruelty of the adults around them.

British playwright Philip Ridley – whose second feature, 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon, I previously wrote about over at Unwinnable – has called The Reflecting Skin a “mythical interpretation” of childhood, and it walks a similarly uncertain folk horror line with Celia. Both films take a comparable approach to the mythologies that we make for ourselves as children. While Celia built her mythos around the Hobyahs and old films noir, for Seth Dove the mythic jumping off point is vampires. Specifically, vampires as they are filtered through the pulp horror mag that his dad is reading, entitled Vampire Blood.

In both cases, the myth-making in which our pint-size protagonists engage is a way for them to understand an adult world that is filled with tragedy, cruelty, and impenetrability – a world into which they can see, but in which they are never welcome. And in both cases, this attempt at understanding leads to tragedy, though assigning the blame to the storytelling itself is missing the point. The tragedy was inevitable; if it wasn’t vampires or Hobyahs, it would have been something else.

Just as Celia was haunted by misfortune, so too is Seth surrounded by it, and often the precipitator of it. However, both films hinge on their child protagonists being directly or indirectly responsible for the death of an adult, and both times, these deaths are catalyzed by the fact that the children do not get the care and understanding that they need from those around them. Instead, they are shut out of ways to process their pain and trauma, and so have to make up their own. While Celia is capable of cruelty and viciousness, however, she seems much more salvageable than Seth, who is so damaged by the time we meet him that any kind of intervention to save him may already be too late. And what would saving him even look like, when the adults in his world are all so broken?

Like The Passion of Darkly Noon, The Reflecting Skin takes place in a time and locale that feels strangely timeless. In this case, however, we know when the film is set – around the closing days of World War II, evidenced by the fact that Seth’s older brother, Cameron, has been serving in the “pretty islands,” where he’s been present for atomic bomb tests and seen the fallout firsthand. He is also now suffering from radiation poisoning, though no one seems to know that and Seth attributes his symptoms to the neighbor lady’s supposed vampirism.

The film is perhaps at its best when it is taking advantage of this timeframe. When Cameron describes the bombs, he doesn’t seem to know the implications of what he is talking about – silvery ash that falls like snow, fish that are boiled alive in the ocean – but we do, and it lends his descriptions a beauty and a horror in equal measure.

Just as important as when the film takes place, though, is where. Set amidst endless seas of golden wheat fields, with run-down farmhouses jutting up from them like the islands Cameron has left behind, The Reflecting Skin is shot mostly during the day, and intentionally designed to evoke famous paintings by the likes of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth. Indeed, “Christina’s World” could be seen as the essential proof of concept for the whole film.

Bringing things full circle for our purposes, Guillermo del Toro would later draw from the same images in creating his interpretation of Nightmare Alley, specifically the visuals of the house where Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle grew up. And, indeed, it doesn’t feel inapt that Del Toro’s version of Carlisle, a lost little boy turned into a man with a hole in his soul that can never be filled, could have been a grown-up version of someone like The Reflecting Skin’s Seth Dove.