Warm, stuffy and slowly encroaching like the creeping threat of starvation, In My Mother’s Skin will worm its way under yours. Filipino filmmaker Kenneth Dagatan conjures a fantastical horror with the thematic interests of Guillermo del Toro and the brutality of Joko Anwar. In My Mother’s Skin blends a child’s chance encounter with a tricky fairy—elaborate and ornate in her insectile ensemble—with a World War II backdrop to craft a thoroughly haunting midnight thriller. Rich with subtext and warring cultural iconography, it’s got body horror, religious doubt and enough delicious flesh to leave gorehounds completely sated. Colorful and bold, it’s a beautifully scary affair.
Dagatan’s skills lie both in conventional horror sequence construction and the unique setting of a highly specific period stage. There will eventually be a possession-like incident, leading to a stalking force. Scares linger, scares jump. But none would be as impressive if they didn’t all take place in a once-lovely estate, now fading amid the lush greenery of its surroundings, under existential threats and ones all too human.
Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) lives with her mom (Beauty Gonzalez) and little brother (James Mavie Estrella) in a posh house, staffed by two servants, on the edge of the jungle. Her dad does, well, something that was once lucrative, and, seeing as the Philippines were smackdab in the middle of the Japanese and the Americans tearing the Pacific apart in 1945, that something was probably a little sketchy. That’s what a local Japanese collaborator thinks, and he’s convinced his Imperial pals that the family is hiding gold. When the dad hits the bricks for a bit to escape this heat, times get tough. Tala and her brother are running out of food. Her mom starts coughing up blood. What’s a girl to do?
As Dagatan painstakingly starts leafing through his morbid fairy tale, you see the problems coming on every tattered page. Tala, young and desperate and (just a little) cocky, never does. Like del Toro’s scheming supernatural creatures, an alluring force steps out of the shadows to provide. A fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), abuzz with promises and potential, sees Tala’s need and strikes. The resulting body horror—which gives Tala’s mom a much worse problem—is disgusting, as grim and gory a counter to the fairy’s glistening beauty as seeing a cloud of butterflies strip a corpse to the bone.
When the fairy arrives, any methodical pacing or languid humidity drops away. You’re moving fast, in a cold sweat, struck by the immediacy of the danger, heralded by a terrifying creature. It’s a wonder of DIY fabrics and light, translucent and with all the colors of the rainbow captured in their bubble-like shine. It’s also a wonder of performance, with Curtis-Smith’s brilliantly understated face framed in gold. All together, the monster merges into an intoxicating, terrifying, fucked-up cicada goddess. She embodies the kind of symbolic (or, in the very worst cases, literal) carrion-feeding that wartime inspires, riffing too on the traditional insect-using magic of the mambabarang. And she’s hungry.
As the fairy’s magic burrows deeper and deeper into this family’s life, reality blurs into dreams; nature encroaches into the home; local legend starts whipping Catholicism’s ass. Pray all you want, folks, but the colonizers aren’t going to help you and neither is their religion. Dagatan doesn’t shy away from subtext, stuffing as many intriguing antitheses into what eventually becomes a straightforward “something evil took over mom” haunted house movie as he can. They add texture and depth to Gonzalez’s bloody good time, layering these levels over the dark and no-holds-barred violence like ideological airbags. They still probably won’t stop you from covering your eyes through some of the movie.
Napuli matches our reactions perfectly, screaming her lungs out and grabbing strands of her hair like they’re the last rope ladder out. The young actor goes big, but believable—she sells most of the horror better than the actual gore. But Dagatan doesn’t skimp on twisting the screws himself: We get long takes when we expect short, and rapid flickers when we’re desperate for less. Both extremes benefit the content: We’re allowed to linger in the stinky, sweaty cottages Tala finds in the dense forest; when the shit hits the fan, her screams are punctuated by reminders of the sinister forces tormenting her.
Tala’s case is a tragic one, where the wartime trauma sinks in deep. Loyalty, faith, honor, suffering. These are things a child can see clearly under this kind of duress, manifesting in Tala’s evolving relationship with (and eventual realization towards) the fairy. You get the sense that the adults around her never quite connect the same dots with their own tormenting demons. Even when Tala screws things up, there’s still hope. With the adults? Their consequences are bloody and eternal.
In My Mother’s Skin is a nasty little morsel that uses its fantastical mastery to inch us closer and closer to the wretched crunch of cannibalism. Its cabin in the woods—or its isolated mansion in the jungle—blends genre generalisms with a specific time and place to serve as a perfectly personal calling card for writer/director Kenneth Dagatan. Don’t be surprised if this feast springboards him into a Shudder deal where he can further explore his rotting pantry of tricks.
Director: Kenneth Dagatan
Writer: Kenneth Dagatan
Starring: Beauty Gonzalez, Felicity Kyle Napuli, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, James Mavie Estrella, Angeli Bayani
Release Date: January 20, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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