FIFF Review: COLD SKIN (2017)

FIFF Review: COLD SKIN (2017)

Aug 1, 2018

COLD SKIN (2017)
Director: Xavier Gens
Writers: Xavier Gens, Eron Sheean
Stars: David Oakes, Ray Stevenson, Aura Garrido

First of all, if you are a huge fan of the other work of French director XAVIER GENS (FRONTIER(S), THE DIVIDE), I don’t think you’re going to be expecting what COLD SKIN has to offer. Written by Gens, with additional material by ERON SHEEAN, and based on a novel by ALBERT SANCHEZ PINOL, SKIN is the kind of movie that they don’t make anymore, but not for lack of trying. Its pedigree lies somewhere between Lovecraft’s DAGON and the best of Jules Verne’s or Robert Louis Stevenson’s work, (the main hero even has a set of Stevenson’s works with him in the movie), reimagined via a melding of the minds between Carpenter, del Toro and Gordon.  Highly literate, visually evocative and haunting, it’s not going to be a film universally liked by all horror fans, as it’s pitched pretty much to those viewers who like their stories on slow-burn mode.

DAVID OAKES, (THE BORGIAS, THE WHITE QUEEN, VICTORIA) stars here as “Friend”, as he comes to be known later in the film. A weather surveyor, he’s transported to a distant lighthouse for a year’s duty in the early 1900’s, relieving his predecessor on the isolated isle where the facility is set. What he and the captain of the ship that brought him find, however, wasn’t something anyone would’ve expected: a grizzled, worn-out old man named Gruner (RAY STEVENSON PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, HBO’s miniseries ROME), who tersely informs them both that the previous surveyor died of typhus, and that he’s the only one there.

Seeing that he’s not going to be able to count on Gruner for much of anything, let alone company, “Friend” sets up shop in the dilapidated living quarters located within striking distance of the lighthouse, with his equipment, his volumes of Stevenson and even a copy of Dante’s “Inferno”, expecting to spend the better part of his year alone, save for crazy, drunken Gruner in the lighthouse. Of course, nothing could possibly prepare him for the singularly insane experience he’s about to have.

But who could have convinced him that during his first night on the island, the house would be set upon by an army of strange, humanoid sea creatures? The signs were all there when he arrived – the ransacked appearance of the living quarters, the sharpened stakes placed at odd intervals both outside the cottage and the lighthouse – but how do you even begin to tell someone about that? Not that Gruner is inclined to be even slightly helpful in this department.

Speaking of which: his angry confrontation with Gruner the following day, after the assault of the amphibians, prompts Gruner to give him that name: “Friend.” But as Friend soon discovers, there are a unique set of rules for living and dealing with the older man, most of them having to do with annihilating as many of the ‘fish-men’ as possible.

Curious philosophy, that. Especially when Friend discovers that he has not only taken one of the females of the species as a kind of mascot, but he also cohabitates with her…in every way that word implies.  Friend’s apprehension of the creature soon transforms from fear, to curiosity, to pity and then so much more, as he comes to name her “Aneris” (AURA GARRIDO), and to realize that there’s a lot more to her and her “tribe” than just some bloodthirsty need to kill humans.

A melding of aspects that also recalls both Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH , and an inverted version of Melville’s MOBY DICK, COLD SKIN once again delves into the premise of how no creature is more dangerous on this planet to other living things than Man.

Oakes, who also narrates the film, calls to mind no less than a young David Hemmings, the star of such movies as BARBARELLA, BLOW-UP and Dario Argento’s classic giallo thriller, DEEP RED. The sensitivity and earnestness of his portrayal of “Friend” is what makes the similarities to that celebrated old-school actor so apparent.

And what more can be said about Stevenson? A living icon of British cinema, known well for playing tough, boisterous, larger-than-life characters, his Gruner plays very much to that tradition, with one remarkable difference: he’s able to dig into the piteous sense of overwhelming fear and loneliness of that character; something that resides deep in the heart of such men, who rely on a naked sense of hatred and false superiority to sustain them.

And there’s no possible way to write about this film, without giving proper acknowledgment to the stunning performance by Garrido. Acting out a part can be tough on the best days, but doing it from beneath layers of latex, conveying the right emotions and doing it so the audience clearly can understand what’s going on in the mind of a character…Andy Serkis and Doug Jones are two actors who have mastered the art in two different mediums, and it’s wonderful to be able to note the work of an actress who operates at least at their level. You come to realize and accept how two men could fall in love with such a creature, albeit in very different ways.

Because of some contextual similarities to del Toro’s latest picture, THE SHAPE OF WATER, SKIN may find itself struggling to access a viewing audience willing to give it a fighting chance. Which would be a shame, since any horror movie trying its best to be something more, deserves the chance to find those kindred spirits who will most appreciate it.

Gens has fashioned a picture that, not unlike del Toro’s CRIMSON PEAK or Gore Verbinski’s A CURE FOR WELLNESS, wouldn’t have been out of place in the regular roster of films that Roger Corman made for AIP, or the earlier works of Curtis Harrington or Joe Dante.  COLD SKIN is a ‘fish-out-of-water’ story, where the ‘fish’ really aren’t the dangerous curiosities…we are.  Three-and-a-half out of five stars.

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