[31 Days Of Horror ’19] Mini Reviews: Altered States (1980) and The Reflecting Skin (1990)

Mini Review Day 07: Altered States (1980)

Ken Russell was a film maker like no other, immersing audiences in all sorts of madness and visuals. His first American made film, Altered States (1980) is a visual feast and a psychedelic trip through time and space. The film is mixed with different genres, there are horror elements, sci-fi, fantasy, drama and thriller. There is as much happening visually as there is verbally, with intriguing dialogue that adds so much to the visual aspect.

The story here is about a scientist Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) who does experiments on himself, focusing on unlocking what’s in the brain using an isolation chamber. His experiences lead him to have hallucinations, but he is unsatisfied with the results and tracks down a hallucination drug from an old tribe that causes more than visions. Along for the ride here are his partner Arthur (Bob Balaban) and his wife Emily (Blair Brown), who can see something unsettling is happening to Eddie.

At the core of Altered States is a love story, the love between Eddie and Emily, despite their ups and down and drifting apart something just keeps bringing them back together. It is a love story like no other, because it doesn’t feel or seem like one, but as everything unfolds it is these two and their connection that keeps it all together. William Hurt made his film debut here and he gives a very strong performance as Eddie, a character who isn’t very likable at first but his obsession and the need for finding what he needs to is an understandable one. Blair Brown is magical as Emily, there is something very resonating with her performance, and the chemistry between the leads works well. Bob Balaban is always excellent and here it is no different, his role is supporting and he adds a lot into the film when he’s on screen.

Altered States feels like one is experiencing a weird drug trip, and that feels like the point. The audience is experiencing these visions with Eddie and it becomes an immersive experience. This is a key aspect of the films of Ken Russell and part of the reason he has always been such an interesting visionary with his creations. A very worthy film and it works as a gate to what 80’s cinema would have to offer with new ideas and unique outcomes.

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Mini Review Day 08: The Reflecting Skin (1990)

Director Philip Ridley has directed three films, the most recent being Heartless (2009) and his first was The Reflecting Skin (1990), a strange dream like film that is as much horror as it is coming of age. The film maker has his own unique style, and gets into theme’s that are unexpected when first getting into the film. This was true of Heartless, and is true of The Reflecting Skin, there is much more under the surface and much to discover. A shame that he has not made another film since, because he is a talented we see rarely see and his films have been memorable, but not widely seen.

The film takes place in rural 1950’s America, where a young boy called Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) spends his long days exploding frogs with his two friends and causing all sorts of trouble. With his young age Seth doesn’t quite know how to understand adults, after his father Luke (Duncan Fraser) tells him about vampires Seth begins to believe their widowed neighbour (Lindsay Duncan) is a vampire and is responsible for the bad things happening. In the world around him Seth must deal with an abusive mother Ruth (Sheila Moore) who is just waiting for the eldest Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) to return from ‘those pretty islands’ and incredible isolation from the world around him.

The Reflecting Skin is a very vibrant film, making great use of colour and the rural setting. This adds to the dream like feel of the film, as if we are seeing these events happen through Seth’s memories, there are quirky moments and moments of pure insanity. At its core the film presents us with a world through the eyes of a boy, a boy who doesn’t understand how the world works and taking every word said literally. This is a clever element, as through Seth we see the change that his life is no longer that of a child, he grows up and faces the harsh realities of the adult life. He doesn’t make the best choices, and in this it leads him down the road he can never come back from.

Performances are quite mixed, the real stand out being Lindsay Duncan in a very confronting role as Dolphin Blue with some memorable scenes. Jeremy Cooper felt perfect as Seth, as far as child performances go this is one of the special ones. Viggo Mortensen is quite good in this early role, sharing a resonating chemistry with Lindsay Duncan. Where the performances don’t quite fit as well as the others, Sheila Moore is really uneven as Ruth, however her work is far better in the second half. Duncan Fraser was also uneven at times, he does have a few scenes that really work though especially with Jeremy Cooper. David Longworth plays Joshua whose few scenes feel well over acted and awkward.

There really isn’t another film out there quite like The Reflecting Skin, it certainly isn’t a film for everyone. It has a lot to uncover and if someone isn’t engaged from the start they wont really be able to keep up. It would be easy to call this a Lynchian film, but Philip Ridley didn’t set out to do that and made something quite unique to his talents.

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Reviews written by Marcella Papandrea

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