In My Mother's Skin Review: A Chilling Horror Of A Family Torn Apart [Sundance]

The nightmarish fairy tale "In My Mother's Skin," playing in the Midnight section at this year's Sundance Film Festival, takes place in the final months of the Second World War. A Filipino family lives in a mansion in the isolated countryside. Their village is occupied by the Japanese, whose loosening grip on the region means they're getting more desperate for results. There are rampant rumors that family patriarch Aldo has stolen gold from the Japanese, so he leaves his family behind to attempt to clear his name. His wife and two children, along with their nanny, are left to fend for themselves, effectively imprisoned in their home as they wait for Aldo's return.

Things weren't always this way. The home, while desolate, seems like a place where countless happy memories were made. An enormous dinner table lies in the dining room that could easily sit more than twenty people, and director Kenneth Dagatan lingers on a wide shot of the vast table, now occupied by just three people. The shot stays just long enough for you to conjure up images of the lively parties and get-togethers that must have taken place here before the war changed everything. Banquets full of mouth-watering food have mutated into a family sharing a sweet potato, as their resources are nearly depleted.

Tensions build slowly in the house. The children wait patiently, agonizingly, for their father to reappear, but with each day, a triumphant return seems increasingly unlikely. They are increasingly uneasy and worried for their mother — who refuses to leave the house as instructed by her husband — as she's developed a nasty cough that gets worse with each sleepless night. The children are also instructed to stay put, but out of concern for their mother and desperation to escape the monotony in which they find themselves, they head into the nearby forest to try and find relief.

Sound familiar?

In the forest, daughter Tala finds a body being consumed by cicadas — bugs that, it must be said, do not typically hunger for human flesh. The horror on Tala's face is quickly wiped away by the appearance of a mythical fairy. The beautiful and ornate fairy has a deep spiritual connection with the cicadas: They allow her to see everything. Tala is given something by the fairy, and she promises it will cure her mother. Seduced by the fairy's warm demeanor and motherly smile, Tala gives her mother the antidote. But what first seems to cure her in fact does the very opposite, transforming Tala's mother into a bloodthirsty creature in a home from which they cannot properly escape.

It's hard to ignore the parallel to another story about a child befriending a mysterious creature with murky intentions: Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth." That's especially true because there are two scenes here that feel eerily similar. In one, Tala follows the fairy's instructions to help heal her sick mother, just as Ofelia does in del Toro's film. In another, the very hungry Tala is presented with a tantalizing selection of food, and it's practically impossible not to think of a similar legendary scene in "Pan's Labyrinth" where Ofelia meets the Pale Man. 

Despite those moments that invite comparison and the theme of childhood innocence that unites those films, "In My Mother's Skin" is a very different, far more frightening beast. Dagatan's camera is mesmerizing, and this is a filmmaker gifted at creating a rich sense of atmosphere. He favors wide shots that show off the immense space where the family lives, but the impressive compositions don't just examine large spaces — they create a dread-inducing feeling of emptiness, with negative space overwhelming the characters on screen. This once-active mansion now feels like a prison. 

A haunting atmosphere, a somewhat lacking story

There's some Filipino folklore here that doesn't necessarily translate to unknowing audiences, but Dagatan makes up for it with a ghoulish, relentlessly frightening atmosphere. "In My Mother's Skin" benefits from some of the slowest, most effectively spine-tingling pans I've seen in recent memory. When a terrifying sound is heard — and thanks to a seriously creepy sound design, there are many — a slow pan occurs, mimicking the eyes of a character keen to see what the sound belongs to, but with such honest trepidation that it feels as if locking eyes with whatever's responsible will be the worst mistake of their lives. It's something that's employed multiple times throughout "In My Mother's Skin," and each time, my heart felt like it was going to burst through my chest.

While the atmosphere, visual effects, and camerawork keep tensions high, the plot begins to wear thin. There's not much more than a family in crisis on display, which isn't necessarily enough to sustain a full feature. The shocking gore and violence wind up feeling repetitive, dulling the impact of the terror that once felt overwhelming. It's a shame, because the first hour does such a fantastic job building up, but the story doesn't really have anywhere surprising to go, and what's great horror without surprise?

Still, "In My Mother's Skin" is a promising film, and whenever I felt the plot lacking, I was won over by the bleak cinematography. Particularly impressive is Felicity Kyle Napuli, who plays Tala. Much of the film is carried by her performance, and she's tremendous, playing Tala as fiercely defiant but never compromising her sense of childhood innocence despite the absolutely horrific circumstances the character finds herself in (through no fault of her own). While all the pieces don't come together in a satisfying way, there's still plenty to be freaked out by in "In My Mother's Skin."

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10