THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990) on DVD
DVD Comparison by James Flower (email@example.com)
The Reflecting Skin (Imagica, Japan, R2 NTSC)
Video: Anamorphic 1:78:1
Sound: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: Japanese (optional)
Extra Features: Trailer, Text Notes, Foldout Poster
Schrei In Der Stille (Laser Paradise, Germany, R2 PAL)
Video: Full-Frame 1:66:1
Sound: German Stereo/German Dolby Digital 5.1/German DTS
Subtitles: German (optional)
Extra Features: Trailers (Superstition/Teuflische Begegnung/Greenfingers/Fast Sofa), Filmographies (Viggo Mortensen/Lindsay Duncan/Jeremy Cooper)
La Piel Que Brilla (DeaPlaneta, Spain, R2 PAL)
Video: Anamorphic 1:85:1
Sound: Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0
Extra Features: None.
Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) is an eight-year old boy living in an isolated farming community in the 1950s. With nothing to do, he and his friends Eben and Kim spent their time torturing animals and harassing a nearby English widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsey Duncan). Upon reading a pulp horror book owned by his father Luke (Duncan Fraser), Seth becomes convinced that Dolphin is a vampire. His fears are exacerbated when Eben goes missing, and is later found dead and sodomised at Luke’s gas station. Luke becomes a suspect, and rather than be arrested, he kills himself by dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself alight. This prompts the return home of Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), Seth’s older brother, who has been overseeing A-bomb testing in the Pacific. Cameron starts a relationship with Dolphin, whom Seth is convinced murdered Eben, and is out to kill him and Cameron next. As Cameron falls more in love with Dolphin, and Kim is also found murdered – in fact, as with Eben, by a group of young paedophiles in a black Cadillac – Seth’s quest to stop Dolphin leads to an unforgettable, bleak conclusion.
One of the most visually ambitious features from a first-time director to come out of the 1990s, the release of The Reflecting Skin (co-financed by the BBC) in 1990 announced Philip Ridley as one of the most promising filmmakers in contemporary British cinema. Ridley puts his love of horror films, Andrew Wyeth and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine in a blender with a caustic look at 20th century American history to create a film that manages the rare trick of being unforgettably disturbing without resorting to explicit violence or sexual content. Though his refusal to compromise his artistic integrity means he has only made one film since – 1995’s The Passion Of Darkly Noon – the reputation of Ridley’s debut has continued to grow in the ensuing years, in spite of its relative obscurity. (I even wrote my university dissertation about it, an exclusive interview with Ridley being the centrepiece of my research.)
Due to rights issues, the film has not been released on DVD in the UK or the US. (I shall address this in the summation at the end of this review.) Three releases have cropped up in various parts of the globe, however, each with various points of interest that warrant examination until a preferable domestic release becomes available. In this review, I hope to give you enough information to make an informed decision about which copy you will buy (or not). To save confusion, I shall refer to them by their international titles: the Japanese release as The Reflecting Skin; the German release as Schrei In Der Stille; and the Spanish disc as La Piel Que Brilla. All three DVDs feature the exact same version of the film (there are no alternate versions in existence), but with varying running times due to PAL speed-up and the presence of company logos.
Schrei In Der Stille is the biggest disappointment of these three releases, especially given the quality of the rest of the disc. Presented in non-anamorphic 1:66:1, the picture is fuzzy, lacking in definition, with the light exposed a few stops too many. In addition, it also seems to have been telecined a little too far to the left, leaving a black bar on the side of the screen (see screencaps). Apparently a full-screen version has also been released, but I have not bought it to compare; I imagine it looks even worse than this.
The Reflecting Skin shows the film in anamorphic 1:78:1, and whilst the picture is somewhat soft and low on contrast, it is nonetheless acceptable. Colours, often have a browner tint than there should be, though this oddly works within the pastoral setting of the film. There are compression artefacts in some scenes however, tell-tale signs that the disc is just a single-layer DVD.
Surprisingly, the otherwise dispensible La Piel Que Brilla features the best picture transfer out of the three DVDs. As opposed to the softer, oftentimes washed-out tones of the other two DVDs, this DVD features a very sharp 1:85:1 anamorphic presentation of the film, showing more picture information on the sides than either, and with a much more vivid colour palette to boot. Scratches and other picture noise are practically non-existent; the print looks remastered, possibly even brand new. While it can come off as a little too dark in some scenes, this is still by some distance the winner.
(Scroll to bottom of page for screencaps of all three releases.)
Imagica are the instant victors here due to the fact the Japanese release is the only one to feature the original English-language audio. It features a pretty standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that’s serviceable though nothing particularly special. La Piel Que Brilla also features a standard 2.0 mix, this time however dubbed into Spanish.
Schrei In Der Stille, on the other hand, offers a frustrating glimpse at what could have been. Although it is only in dubbed German, unlike the other two release Laser Paradise have included 5.1 and DTS remixes (as well as the standard 2.0). I cannot review the latter as I don’t have the equipment to play it – the 5.1 mix, however, is stunning, doing particular justice to Nick Bicat’s fantastic, deeply underrated score. Listen to the choral voices as Seth explores Dolphin’s house just before Cameron’s “pretty islands” soliloquy – the effect is spellbinding in a manner that just doesn’t come across at all on the 2.0 mixes. One only hopes an English-language release can be given similar care in its audio presentation one day. (And let’s have a CD release of the score as well, dangnammit!)
By far and away, this is the best feature on the Schrei In Der Stille disc. Opening with a brief cut of Seth running into the field about to unleash his climactic final screams, an abridged version of Nick Bicat’s opening credits theme plays as slow-motion shots of Seth, Cameron and Dolphin unreel over another shot of Dolphin’s house. Select the “Szenenauswahl” (or Scene Selection), and following a brief shot from Seth’s first scene in Dolphin’s house, an edited version of the end credits music plays over a photo of Seth screaming, with the selectable scenes actually playing in their respective boxes. The audio selection menu is a static shot of Cameron (mixed with Seth from the gas station fire), playing in silence. The extras menus are also static and silent, showing a picture of Seth superimposed over Cameron’s first shot in the film. The most beautiful thing about these menus – other than their brilliant use of Bicat’s music – is a pastel-coloured, crayon-like effect used throughout, appropriately recalling the film’s painterly style. (Both The Reflecting Skin and The Passion Of Darkly Noon actually grew out of an exhibition of artworks Ridley displayed in the late-eighties, titled American Gothic.) Any future special-edition release would do well to emulate these designs.
The menu on The Reflecting Skin is static, and designed to resemble the DVD sleeve’s front cover, with a picture of Viggo Mortensen imposed onto a picture of Seth and Kim running out of Dolphin’s house. Again, an edited version of the opening credits music plays over it. The extras menu simply displays a static photo of Seth and Dolphin beside the black Cadillac, this time in silence. The scene selection menu is also static with no sound, and uses a cool, Gothic-looking “goat’s skull” icon to illuminate the selected scene.
La Piel Que Brilla simply uses a close-up photo of Lindsay Duncan over its main menu, with a snippet of the end credits music playing over the top. This music also plays over the static scene selection menu, which mainly uses the same (quite rare) publicity photo of Seth sitting in Dolphin’s house used as the DVD’s cover art.
The Imagica DVD is the clear winner here. The main special feature is the British theatrical trailer for the film, which excellently tackles the unenviable task of presenting the style and tone of the film to new audiences. It is clearly sourced from a VHS, being in significantly inferior quality to the main feature, but its presence in itself – given how rare it is – is something to be grateful for. Outside the actual DVD, included within the case is a foldout reproduction of the poster (Seth in the chair holding the harpoon – also used as the cover of the US VHS). Text notes on the film are included on the back of the poster, including a brief bio on Mortensen. However I cannot give a review of them, seeing as they are in Japanese.
The extras menu on Schrei In Der Stille also lists a trailer, but don’t get your hopes up – it turns out to be dubbed trailers for four other films, none of which bear any relation to The Reflecting Skin. Biographies/filmographies are included for Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Cooper, though these appear to be copied verbatim from the Internet Movie Database. (Very lazy!)
La Piel Que Brilla is a totally vanilla (extras-free) disc.
The Japanese R2 wins by sheer default – because of the inclusion of the original English-language audio, and its choice of extras. I declare it the winner with some reservations, however, seeing as the Spanish DVD offers superior picture quality, and the German disc gives us an example of what a treat it would have been if Imagica had splashed out on a 5.1/DTS remix (and nicer menus). As a budget-priced stopgap, I have no reservations recommending those two releases to German or Spanish-speaking fans (even if the dubbing is a bit silly). Clearly, there is much room for improvement for a future DVD release of The Reflecting Skin. But how likely is it?
When I interviewed Philip Ridley in January 2006, he told me that Tartan Video had investigated releasing both this and Darkly Noon on DVD in the UK, but were unable to locate the rights owners. The film was released theatrically in America by Miramax, which offers the terrifying possibility that the US rights are owned by Disney, who would almost certainly never release it. Though this is just conjecture, it is more likely however that the US rights may be owned by Lion’s Gate, seeing as the original American video release was handled by Live Home Video, who subsequently morphed into Artisan, who were then acquired by Lion’s Gate. (Just as a potential lead: UK releases of some Artisan-acquired titles have been handled by Columbia-Tristar, e.g. films from the Vestron library like Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride and Bernard Rose's Paperhouse. Otherwise it may even be worth asking the BBC…?)
The fact that the three discs reviewed here are distributed by independent companies seems to imply – thank God - that the rights are not held up by an international conglomerate, who would possibly have no interest in releasing a weird little art film that failed to do much box office. Unfortunately, it all remains a mystery for the time being.
A crying shame, especially seeing as Viggo Mortensen’s star is more in the ascendant than ever following his much-deserved Lord Of The Rings success (not to mention his chilling performance in David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence). As its cult cache continues to grow year after year, perhaps one day a company like Criterion may preserve the film as it deserves to be, with an HD remaster and sackloads of extras (including retrospective documentaries, Ridley’s storyboards and early short films) – Tartan UK’s recent boxset of Chan-Wook Park’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ and Subversive Cinema’s jaw-dropping 5-disc handling of Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil are two such role models. Until then, these three releases will have to do; I hope this article helps you make the right choice.
DVD screencaps (click for larger view)