It does not take long for In My Mother’s Skin to get gross. Within its first few minutes, the horror film from writer and director Kenneth Dagatan subjects you to some truly gruesome images of flesh-eating creatures, and honestly, it never really lets up. This is a blood-soaked fairy tale, one that mashes together folklore and history in a way that’s reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s defining work, Pan’s Labyrinth — only it’s a lot scarier.
The movie is set in the Philippines in 1945 in the waning days of World War II, with Japanese forces occupying the country. Things are bleak. Early on, you hear kids sharing horrible stories about the barbaric acts of the Japanese soldiers, and the family at the center of the story is getting by on whatever scraps of food they have left. It only gets worse from there. The story follows young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) as she deals with a mounting number of problems. First, her father, who is under investigation for stealing gold from the Japanese, flees to help the Americans. Then her mother’s (Beauty Gonzalez) illness worsens to the point that she can’t leave her bed.
One day, while walking in a forbidden part of the woods, Tala stumbles across a strange place, one that she’s told can only be reached by those with an “untainted heart.” With few other options, she eventually enlists the help of a mysterious fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who lives there, a creature that knows almost everything about Tala’s family thanks to an army of cicada spies. The fairy’s cure for her mother’s illness... well, it doesn’t go the way Tala hoped. Her mother does indeed live, but she’s possessed by something supernatural and violent. I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say she gets real hungry.
Even though the general premise and setup of In My Mother’s Skin has shades of Pan’s Labyrinth — both being dark fairy tales set against the backdrop of a real war — the film definitely is its own unique thing. Most notably, it’s much more of a pure horror experience; there are some elaborate costumes and interesting folklore creatures, but this is a movie where you will be terrified of its monsters rather than in awe of their fantastical designs. It’s the kind of brutal, graphic, and sparse horror you get from a movie like Hereditary.
There are a few things that In My Mother’s Skin does notably well. It’s very efficient with its scares; it spends long periods of time building up the dread, with slow panning camera shots filled with lots of “what the hell is that!” moments just waiting for you to spot. And when you do finally see the creatures and the violence they inflict, and all the ensuing blood, it’s so absolutely ferocious that, at times, I had to look away. (I watched this movie right before going to bed, which I wholeheartedly do not recommend.) There are also some fantastic performances here; Gonzalez is the stuff of nightmares when she turns it on, Curtis-Smith manages to inhabit both the light and dark of a possibly evil fairy, and Napuli turns in a shockingly impressive vision of a child terrorized by supernatural forces. It all wraps up with an ending that is both open to interpretation and extremely messed up.
Perhaps the strangest thing about In My Mother’s Skin is where most people will end up watching it. Ahead of Sundance, where the film premiered, Amazon announced that it had acquired the rights and that the movie would hit Prime Video before the end of 2023. It’s a strange place for an independent Filipino horror movie that will join an eclectic lineup dominated by an incredibly expensive TV show — but I’m just glad it has a home, as it’s one of the most terrifying things I’ve watched in a very long time.
This review is based on a screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. In My Mother’s Skin is planned for a release later this year on Amazon Prime Video.