THE PUMPKIN AT MIDNIGHT: THE FILMS OF PHILIP RIDLEY
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. I've tried to keep them to a minimum, but a few were necessary to make some points. I apologize ahead of time.
The British director Lindsay Anderson was once asked to explain a particularly surrealistic scene of one of his movies. He looked the questioner in the eye and said, "You don't ask why the coach turns into a pumpkin at midnight." That quote brings to mind when director Philip Ridley is at his best-your questions may not get answered but you don't mind, because the ride itself is so fantastic.
Philip Ridley is not the most prolific director. In the past twenty years he has made three feature films. In between he's written novels (both adult and children's), stage and radio plays, as well as exhibited paintings and photography. It's that very combination of linguistic and visual skill that makes his movies exist in a balance between the story and the image.
Most people familiar with his movies know him as the director of The Reflecting Skin (1990), his first and in my opinion, his best. Stuck in a miniscule rural town in mid-century mid-west America, eight-year-old Seth lives a sad and isolated life. His mother is in turns emotionally vacant and overbearing, his father is a shell of a man, and his older brother is off in some sort of war. To make matters worse, a mysterious black car has appeared in the town, and Seth's friends are being murdered one by one. This is not your typical Hollywood vision of childhood during an idyllic time. And Seth is not an idyllic child. Rather than the pure-hearted innocent that children tend to be portrayed as in films, Seth is painfully human. We empathize with Seth's loneliness when he quietly speaks his fears to his one friend left-a mummified fetus found buried in a barn. And yet we're horrified when he sticks a straw into a frog's anus, inflates him, and then makes him explode in the face of the local 'witch'. We are elated when he gets reunited with his brother, and feel his despair when his brother abandon's him for his new love-the town witch.
Thematically, Ridley centered The Reflecting Skin on a brief time in Seth's growing up that could point the way for the rest of his life-will he be heroic, or will he give in to his darker side? Halfway through the movie, Seth makes the connection between the black car, and the deaths of his friends, yet given opportunity after opportunity, he never tells. Not the police, not his mother, not his brother. He keeps that information to himself. As we've been rooting for him all along, it's easy for us the audience to chalk it up to fear. But at one point he is faced with a chance to stop the witch from getting into the car and, presumably, to her doom. He chooses to remain quiet, smiling as she gets into the car. Seth has made his choice. Here, Ridley makes a very interesting choice. He could have ended the movie there, with Seth's decision, and faded to black. Instead, he shows the aftermath, when Seth realizes what he has done and, in turn, what he has become. That single moment is one of the most truly horrific moments I've seen in film, and where Ridley shows his artistry.
The Reflecting Skin captures one small section of life in the story. There are questions left unanswered of what happened before (what exactly is that secret his parents are keeping, what was the horrific thing his brother saw in that unnamed war) or what was going on in the world during the telling of the story (How much actual magic did the witch know? Why, in this town that seems to have less than a hundred people, nobody else noticed the car? Where did that fetus come from?). I personally am glad we're not handed the answers. By explaining these things, it brings them into focus, shines a spotlight on their oddity. Instead, they are simply part of the tapestry of Seth's world and we the audience can put as much, or as little, story onto them as we want.
Five years later, Ridley came back to film with The Passion of Darkly Noon. He also revisited some of the same elements of Reflecting Skin: the isolation of rural America, whether a woman's sexuality is evil, and the balance of good and evil in all people. This time, though, instead of focusing on a child, the movie centers around a young, almost child-like man, Darkly Noon (named from the bible passage, "We see each other through a glass, darkly"). He is the sole survivor of the massacre of a small Christian group that may or may not have been a cult. He's wandered through the woods and, at the verge of death, is discovered and brought to the house of Callie and Clay. As he recovers, Darkly is more and more attracted to Callie and tries to reconcile his lustful thoughts and his religious beliefs. When a local woman explains that Callie is a witch, his feelings make sense to him-she has cast a spell over him and both she, and her partner in sin, must pay.
This movie is much more straightforward than The Reflecting Skin. While Darkly Noon has its moments of surrealness (a random giant silver glitter sneaker floating through the woods, the talking dead), the world in which it exists is much less magical. Even the mysterious parts, like Darkly's past and the above said shoe, are thoroughly explained. While it does make the movie easier to follow, it feels like some of the magic of Reflecting Skin is missing. We know how and why the coach turns into a pumpkin, and we have seen the man behind the curtain. I know this will make it more appealing to some people and I have to say that it is not a bad movie at all. The story is engaging, the pacing is just right, and the performances are spot on. But for me, personally, the lack of wonderment with this one makes it much less fun than Reflecting Skin.
It was a decade and a half before Philip Ridley made another movie. Heartless was released in the U.K. about a month ago and it was not at all what I expected. All the promotional material portrays it as a horror/revenge flick, centering around a young man with a huge port wine stain on his face and arm. He lives an isolated existence with his mother in a violent East London apartment, surrounded by gangs. Whenever he leaves his home, Jamie is faced with both violence from the gangs and the horror of people when they see the gigantic birthmark. While coming home from work at a photography studio, Jamie discovers that the gang members are actually demons. Not long after they target him and his mother. This pushes him over the edge and he goes off in search of vengeance.
Then things get really strange. Once Jamie comes face to face with the demon leader, he is given a Faustian choice of happiness and a beautiful face in exchange for his assistance in causing mayhem. Jamie is under the impression that it only involves profane graffiti. Right away, he gets a new chance at life, the birthmark gone and almost immediately, attention from the woman he had a crush on. Then it comes time to pay up. Only, the stakes are higher than he expected....
While the story is as straightforward as Darkly Noon, Heartless still has some of the wild imagery of The Reflecting Skin. Between the frightening faces of the demons, the scenes of Jamie and his new love, and especially the scene where Jamie 'sheds his skin', the visuals are almost perfectly arranged. Heartless does lack the surreal moments of the other two; there is nothing to compare to the abandoned fetus or the giant floating shoe. No, this one is more set in the reality of the East End (as much as you can have reality in a movie about demons). If I hadn't seen The Reflecting Skin, I would have counted Heartless as one of the best movies I've seen in a while. But knowing what Ridley is capable of, I missed that sense of magic. I missed seeing the coach turn into a pumpkin.
There is something in Philip Ridley's movies for a wide array of tastes. If you like a more straightforward story, with a touch of symbolism in the background, Heartless is for you. You might like Passion of Darkly Noon if you like your surrealism to make sense. And if you happen to be in the mood for a wild ride you can debate with your friends for hours afterwards, then I cannot recommend The Reflecting Skin enough.
On a side note, after watching the Philip Ridley movies I got curious and hunted down his novel In the Eyes of Mr. Fury. I'm halfway through it and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. It has a fascinating story of a teenager on the verge of adulthood, trying to find his place in the world, but still contains a sense of bizarre magic. Once I'm finished, I'll post a more thorough review of it in the comments section.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES:
If you live in Europe, you're lucky. Heartless was just released on DVD in the U.K., so it should be readily available. There is a German Blu-Ray disc of The Reflecting Skin. Neither movie, as of yet, has had an official U.S. release on DVD, although I've heard there are VHS copies of The Reflecting Skin (as well as a few uploaded versions available from various internet video sites). Darkly Noon saw a Dutch and Canadian DVD release, both of which are out of print. However, there seems to be a whole bunch on eBay, for less than a new DVD would have cost you.