The year is 1914. A young meteorologist (David Oakes) arrives on a desolate island in the South Atlantic for a 12-month stint of studying weather patterns. The terrain is unwelcoming, covered by shard-like rocks and plagued by a constant torrent of hostile weather. It’s an environment so stark it drains the entire film of colour, leaving only a palette built of varying shades of blue and grey with the occasional burst of firelight for warmth. The only other inhabitant on the island is Gruner (Ray Stevenson), a bearded and burly lighthouse keeper whose grunted line readings eventually lend the meteorologist a nickname: Friend. Mysterious footprints in the sand and a prevailing air of unease suggest that something isn’t quite right with this specific piece of land. As the sun sets on Friend’s first night we suddenly discover why: like clockwork, at nightfall, it is set upon by a horde of savage sea creatures determined to eradicate the island of any human life. With the lighthouse as their sanctuary, Gruner takes Friend under his wing with the intention of hardening him into a fellow warrior who can assist him in destroying the monsters once and for all. The situation is complicated further, however, when Friend discovers Gruner has captured one of the creatures, a female, whom he keeps as a companion, prisoner and, most disturbingly, as a lover.
While mainly dealing in predictably-timed jump scares and routine shocks, Cold Skin’s period setting and dreary island-bound locale add enough fresh flavour to the stale genre ingredients to sustain your interest. Director Xavier Gens is clearly having fun swapping out the usual shotguns and kitchen appliances for muskets and burning torches, substituting the standard cabin in the woods scenario for the more visually dynamic lighthouse on an isolated enclave. The presence of a whale carcass on the island also spices up many a thankless dialogue scene, if just for being something cool to look at in the background. There’s no worry of mobile phone signals here or the possibility of rescue from a passing stranger. Our characters are as helpless and cut-off from society as Tom Hanks was in Cast Away, only with the added threat of feral sea creatures. The siege conceit–a favourite of John Carpenter’s for good reason–keeps things immediate and visceral, even if it ultimately hinders the narrative with a repetitive backbone, constantly resetting itself with every sunrise until the next nocturnal showdown inevitably comes around. When you break it down, this is yet another riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which has inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to its own numerous direct adaptations (The Omega Man, I Am Legend) and the closer Cold Skin stays to the surface of that influence, the better the film is. Only when it tries to go deeper does it come up short.
Adapted by Alex and David Pastor from Albert Sánchez Piñol’s successful novel of the same, Cold Skin’s literary aspirations are only a problem when it starts name-checking Nietzche, in the form of an on-screen quote in the opening seconds, or Dante via a close up of Inferno burning in a fire–sigh. It’s all too on the nose and an unnecessary distraction from the core excitement provided by the lean genre thrills. Nobody wants to see a film that thinks it’s smarter than it is, and certainly nobody wants to see a horror movie about humanoid sea monsters which feels the need to need to remind us that sometimes when a man looks into an abyss, the abyss looks back.
Despite the limited square footing of its primary location, Cold Skin always finds new corners of it to explore, at one point indulging in an effective side-mission to retrieve dynamite from a shipwreck in antique diving gear. That said, the film is never outright scary, instead aspiring for relentless terror, with the creature design leaving a lot to be desired. Maybe with a bigger budget and more time given to roughing up the digitally sleek cinematography, a grimier, more lived-in and convincing horror aesthetic could be achieved, but as it stands, Gens and his crew use their limited resources to the best of their ability. It has atmosphere and it has momentum. Actress Aura Garrido instills pathos and physicality into her rubbery full-body make-up as the captive creature, but it’s Ray Stevenson who earns the title of the film’s most effective special effect. His brutish take on Captain Ahab is given all the slow-motion fetishisation of a new action icon, as if Gens felt the need to ready him for one-sheet poster glory. At one point the camera rests on Stevenson’s face as he doses off rather than covering the chaotic action sequence happening just off-screen, knowing damn well where the real money shots of this picture lie. It’s a committed performance, one that never transcends the absurd and heightened genre confines it occupies but instead comfortably exists within it. Stevenson is reason to see the film alone, and a potent reminder that he should be considered everyone’s favourite Punisher.
Given the timing of its release and the presence of a fish-like creature doubling up as a sexual partner, it’s perhaps inevitable that Cold Skin will be initially compared to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The inclusion of some del Toro-esque sketchbooks on screen suggest the famed Mexican auteur inspired Gens’ film in at least a minor capacity, but in feel, tone, and genre, the two films couldn’t be further apart. Firstly, Cold Skin isn’t a love story. The physical relationship between man and monster is nastier, more perverse and even less likely to gain the shrugged-off acceptance supporting characters displayed upon learning about Sally Hawkins’ unconventional bedroom antics in del Toro’s film. In The Shape of Water, the sex scenes are rendered with a certain level of heightened romantic fantasy; in Cold Skin, they are rough, ugly, and designed to shock and disgust the audience in the same way they shock and disgust Friend. It doesn’t take long for you to realise you aren’t really watching sex scenes at all, but an extended act of rape. It’s a rightfully uncomfortable subplot which thankfully doesn’t feel sensational or distasteful in what is otherwise a taut and punchy B-chiller. Time will no doubt crystallise The Shape of Water in viewers’ memories–after all, it won Best Picture–but Cold Skin will make for a satisfying VOD alternative with purer, more straightforward genre leanings. For the most part, Gens’ film works just fine, and is a fun, if inessential, exercise in “things that go bump in the night” filmmaking.
Cold Skin played at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival in Canada on July 15th. It will be released on VOD and in select theatres on September 7th 2018
Directed by Xavier Gens; written by Alex and David Pastor; based on the novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol; starring David Oakes, Ray Stevenson, and Aura Garrido; 107 minutes