One of the most exciting things about the horror genre is that it is generally able to transcend cultural barriers, so it is always fascinating to see horror movies from other countries. In My Mother’s Skin, the only non-English language film in this year’s Sundance Midnight lineup, may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a solidly executed take on the formula.
In My Mother’s Skin follows a young girl who, in an attempt to save her ill mother, misguidedly puts her trust in a beguiling fairy who may have more sinister intentions than it seems. Although the film does struggle with juggling a few too many subplots, it’s main story — a relatively straightforward, if somewhat demented fable — is mostly compelling.
If a dark fairy tale about a young girl trying to survive in a war-torn country sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been done. The movie plays out in a way that feels very similar to a Filipino Pan’s Labyrinth, and while the story and themes aren’t particularly inventive — perhaps even unoriginal — strong direction from Kenneth Dagatan manages to keep it compelling.
Those aware of Southeast Asia’s style of horror will know that this isn’t “elevated” horror in the cerebral, slow burn sense. Although the pacing isn’t breakneck fast, it jumps rather quickly from beat to beat. There are some moments of extreme brutality interwoven with lulls of whimsical false security. It’s almost hypnotic in a way — a cross between a dream and a nightmare.
The film is never particularly scary, instead focusing largely on atmosphere to unsettle the viewer. The score is fantastic, predominantly composed of lullaby-like tones but mixing in some more shrill notes to maintain the tension. And Jasmine Curtis-Smith’s performance as the fairy is sinister yet alluring.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of In My Mother’s Skin is its visual style. The costume for the fairy is fantastic and will likely go down as some of the best design work of the year. And given that the movie is set entirely in and around the mansion and its surrounding woods, the production design does a brilliant job of making this decrepit house into something truly inducing unease.
Although the use of gore in the film isn’t horribly frequent or prolonged, the moments that do feature it are not for the faint-of-heart. Dagatan came up with some really disturbing ways to show a mutilated human body, but he uses these images effectively to make the movie feel emotional and make the political themes resonate more.
In many ways, In My Mother’s Skin feels like a retread of the dark fairy tales that we have seen dozens of times before. Still, director Kenneth Dagatan’s grasp of the principles of atmosphere and tone allow this to be effectively haunting.
In My Mother’s Skin is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.
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