Gory, glittery and irresistibly bleak, In My Mother’s Skin represents a stylish, ripe contribution to the folk-horror canon. Not unlike his acclaimed debut, Ma (2018), Manila-based writer-director Kenneth Dagatan’s second feature revolves around a young person who makes a bargain with a malevolent insectoid forest spirit to help her family — with disastrous consequences.
This time round, Dagatan and his team have added a period frame by setting the story on a rural estate in the Philippines during the final days of World War II, just before the defeat of the occupying Japanese forces. Inevitably, that fascism subtext coupled with the creepy-ancient-being stuff strongly brings Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth to mind, at least to a Western viewer’s eyes. But if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. And there’s plenty that’s fresh, frisky and original here. It’s no surprise the global rights were snapped up by Amazon Prime before the film premiered in Sundance’s Midnight section.
In My Mother’s Skin
The Bottom Line
Good enough to eat.
Shot with a small cast mostly in one location, like so many features in the time of COVID, the film begins with a sense of panicky isolation surrounded by a threatening darkness, and never really lets up. After an extremely gory, if low-lit, pre-title sequence pans over blood-soaked corpses being feasted on by a possessed soldier, who then vomits a live bird, the action cuts to a large mansion where a once-wealthy family has been trying to survive the war. Almost the first line of dialogue is a question from adolescent girl Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli, outstanding): She asks her little brother, Bayani (James Mavie Estrella, also great), if he’s heard about Japanese soldiers in Manila throwing live babies in the air and then skewering them with bayonets for fun, which definitely sets a tone.
The conversation goes on while a man named Antonio (Ronnie Lazaro) drives up with some Japanese soldiers, offering enough food for a feast, quite a temptation in these times of famine. It turns out the Japanese and Antonio want to know where the kids’ father, Romualdo (Arnold Reyes), has hidden some gold the Japanese believe belongs to them. He insists he knows nothing of this gold, but soon after he goes away, claiming to have business to attend to that will protect the family. He leaves his sickly wife, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez), and the two children in the care of the family’s last remaining servant, Amor (Angeli Bayani).
Ligaya appears to have one of those wasting, unnamed, cinematic diseases that causes racking coughs and general fecklessness, requiring her to stay in bed most of the time. With nothing much left to eat but sweet potatoes, the children take their father’s gun beyond the gate and into the forest they’ve always been forbidden from entering, hoping to catch something to eat. Before you can say Hansel and Gretel, they become separated and Tala finds a hut in the woods with creepy stained glass windows, zillions of black, june-bug-like insects, and a piece of candy in a bright red wrapper, sitting on a table like an offering.
Of course she eats it, and of course that turns out to be her first mistake. A smiling fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) appears, dressed in a massive gown and wearing a gold lamé and pearl-encrusted headdress that makes her look like a cross between a Miss Universe contestant and a Virgin Mary statue. (There are frequent cutaways throughout to an actual Virgin Mary statue in Tala’s home, in case you missed the visual allusion.) The fairy offers to reward Tala’s “innocence” by giving her one of her insect minions, explaining that when applied internally to Ligaya, it will cure her disease.
The rest of the film is one long demonstration of how there’s always a catch. Wise children should take away the lesson that one must never trust fairies of any description or anyone offering free sweets, food or disease-curing insects. That said, most children would be hugely traumatized by seeing this film, in which Tala’s mother eventually turns murderous, mad and chameleon-tongued while the bodies pile up one by one. Indeed, one hopes steps were taken to protect the child actors themselves from the disturbing imagery throughout.
Although the relentless flesh-munching and insectoid clicking sounds become a little repetitive by the time we reach the third act, Dagatan still has a few tricks up his sleeve to provide surprises, including a doozy involving Amor, the faithful servant. DP Russell Morton’s inky cinematography remains legible enough for the film to play well on small screens, a likely fate given the sale to Amazon, while the creations by production and costume designers Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije punctuate the gloom with pops of garish color.