THE STORY – Stranded in the Philippines during World War II, a young girl finds that her duty to protect her dying mother is complicated by her misplaced trust in a beguiling, flesh-eating fairy.
THE CAST – Beauty Gonzalez, Felcity Kyle Napuli, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, James Mavie Estrella & Angeli Bayani
THE TEAM – Kenneth Dagatan (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
A fairytale horror drama set during WWII focusing on a little girl grappling with the horrors of the real world alongside the atrocities of the fantastical world set in an isolated, palatial home, featuring a fairytale creature offering a strange object that might save the little girl’s mother. Also, it is sporadically really gory and has sequences involving the little girl making the ill-advised choice to eat an item of food left out. If it sounds like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” you’re not crazy. “In My Mothers Skin” is very much from the Guillermo del Toro school of storytelling. It just happens to be more sluggishly paced and not as well-crafted on a technical level.
Young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) lives with her family on a wealthy plantation in Japanese-occupied Philippines. When Tala’s father, plagued by rumors that he has stolen Japanese gold, flees to find support from Americans, he leaves Tala and her brother (James Mavie Estrella) to care for her sick mother. Tala seeks out the guidance of a mysterious fairy who offers to heal her mother. But the fairy’s assistance comes with a terrible price.
“In My Mother’s Skin” was always going to suffer from comparisons to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Starting out, it does its best to distinguish itself with a squelching, nasty opening scene that feels more akin to a zombie movie than a dark fairytale. But as the film settles into its story, the comparisons become more apparent, and the film’s flaws more evident. This is a tortuously slow film. And on some level, maybe that works, replicating the interminable waiting the characters must feel. But it doesn’t make for an engaging watch. However, the pacing is only slightly buoyed by practical craftsmanship. Although the compositions throughout the film are interesting, boasting Kubrick-esque symmetry, the film is over-lit, with low-contrast brightness hindering the effectiveness of some of the film’s more frightening scenes. This brightness also serves to make the film look, unfortunately, cheaply made when such imperfections could’ve easily been hidden. The fairy at the film’s center boasts an intriguingly designed costume that pulls from the Virgin Mary iconography. It’s an interesting choice and hints at the film’s further interrogations of organized religion’s role in colonialism. Yet, the costume also looks cheap due to the film’s overall visual look, which breaks the illusion the filmmakers are working to sell. At times, the film’s handheld and steadicam shots also feel particularly amateurish in their execution.
Despite these technical misgivings that distract from the overall plot, the film’s apparent budgetary shortcomings sometimes serve it well. There are violent sequences whose most gruesome moments occur off-screen, allowing the effective sound and the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps. A constant insect buzzing at play in the background grows throughout the film in step with the viewer’s sense of dread. And when the film chooses to showcase bloody body horror, the practical gore effects are above-average and a sick pleasure.
“In My Mother’s Skin” suffers from simply not being particularly scary. There is one sequence involving a character skittering through the bedroom on all fours, coming to rest beneath Tala’s bed, that manages to elicit some “keep the lights on afterward” anxiety. But by and large, the film is more interested in showing that the world is “horrifying” instead of scary.
That being said, Tala’s arc is compelling to watch unfold. The story is about a loss of innocence with an abundance of Christian imagery, complete with forbidden fruit. And watching Tala’s descent into desperation and her dark choices is intriguing enough for the most part. When the film chooses to lean more into the period’s unfairness and brutality, that can also be emotionally effective. And when the deaths come, they are often sudden and unfair to characters we were starting to get to know and build sympathy for. “In My Mother’s Skin” is a mixed effort with writing that isn’t quite refined enough to make its audience fully invested. Compelling horror doesn’t necessarily have to be scary, but the writing needs to make for a particularly exhilarating drama if it is going to avoid trying to be frightening. Unfortunately, the drama is not as convincing to compensate for the overlit imagery and lack of scares.