In another standout film from the horror programming at Sundance, we are taken back through time to discover the world’s most terrifying fairy.
Once you’ve seen enough horror films, it takes a lot to get under your skin. They can fall into familiar patterns and, even when competently made, become doomed by how derivative they are. Yet, even after taking in all the bodily fluids of Infinity Pool or the fleshy fun of Birth/Rebirth, it is joyous that another festival film like In My Mother’s Skin can pull you into its own dark world. A vibrant vision of historical and mythological horror from writer-director Kenneth Dagatan, it weaves all of these elements together in a way that is uniquely unsettling as you take in all of its depraved details. While initially reminiscent of early Guillermo del Toro, with The Devil’s Backbone feeling like a key reference point, it dives headfirst into a series of gruesome encounters that rip right through you to leave a bloody impression all its own.
The film brings complete life to a bleak world that is almost entirely filtered through the perspective of a young girl named Tala. Played by a fantastic Felicity Kyle Napuli in her feature debut, she is living in a reclusive mansion in the Philippines in 1945 as World War II is approaching its end. This doesn’t mean much to her and her family as they still are facing many perils that threaten to consume them. While their wealth may have provided them some initial protection, the occupation of their island has still upended their lives. When Tala’s father leaves to go seek help from the Americans, leaving her alone with her mother and brother with no sense of when he’ll return, she must deal with a sickness taking hold of the home and all who reside in it. Desperate for some sort of help, she discovers a fairy living in the woods who offers assistance. When Tala takes her up on this offer, she unwittingly invites in something far more destructive than anything she or her family could have ever imagined.
When it comes to the precise machinations of the plot, it is better to know little about the exact nature of this destruction to preserve the full weight of the experience. Suffice to say, the sickness is initially a familiar one that takes hold of Tala’s mother. When she subsequently acts on the advice of the fairy to do what she thinks is saving her, she brings about something infinitely worse. The way this is felt via the film’s sound design of crunching and squishing is so effective that you can’t help beginning to squirm. When juxtaposed against the brilliant design and costume of the illuminated fairy, the deceptions that pile up along with the bodies carry that much more impact. It is a work of horror folklore that pulls no punches in its presentation even as its story frequently plays a familiar tune. The elevating forces of every aspect of the world is what makes it all sing even as the characters begin to scream. The fairy, who almost seemed like a character who could have appeared in the brilliant comedy series Los Espookys, is mesmerizing and macabre in all the best ways. Longtime performer Jasmine Curtis-Smith imbues this magical being with small details that become almost hypnotic, making us fully believe that Tala would become caught in her grasp.
While all this is taking place, there is an appropriate level of melancholy in how we catch small hints of the real-life upheaval that is playing out alongside the supernatural. One particular conversation between Tala’s mother and a man she hopes will help her find the missing patriarch is given something deeper when he remarks how “our country is the way it is now because of promises.” It is a simple statement that is overflowing with tragedy made even more devastating by the additional following line about how they are all “on our own here” and “no one is going to help us.” This both ups the stakes and reminds us of the terror lurking beyond the sight of the children. It establishes this all with a light touch, keeping the horror central to the experience, but it invites a bit of a deeper reading about what was really the cause of their strife. Just as Tala trusts a magical fairy in the woods to save them, her father places all his hope in those that would sooner kill him and his family without a second thought. The tragedy comes from this being what they believe to be their only option which only ends up worsening their suffering. For all the ways you can see what is coming that the characters cannot, with a bloody opening scene revealing the truth of the fairy’s “gift” to us as the audience, this only makes it all the more horrifying when Tala fatefully accepts it.
When everything subsequently kicks off, nothing is held back as the home becomes completely and utterly consumed by forces beyond any of the family’s control. At every moment you think you might know what is going to happen, there will be a shot of something so grisly that it pulls you back under into the darkness. These images all burrow their way into your mind with Dagatan bringing necessary patience to each and every moment of madness. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but such a terrifying nightmare like this couldn’t ever be. Some of the final shots that drift out to the forest once more are absolute perfection, reminding us how truly alone all of these characters are. No matter how much they scream out, no one and nothing is coming to their aid. All their grasps at salvation only allow them to slide further back, their bloody hands no longer able to even hold the already painful lives they once had together. A descent into darkness that will swallow you whole, In My Mother’s Skin is a beautiful and brutal work of historical horror with visuals that will echo through your mind.
In My Mother’s Skin debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.