Playing at Fantasia 2018, Xavier Gens’ Cold Skin is a crushingly good film. It is a taut, creepy character study that takes an unflinching look at desperation, isolation, and the terror of facing the unknown. But this isn’t some pretentious arthouse movie, no drawn-out treatise on ennui. Here there be monsters.
The year is 1914, and the world is on the cusp of World War I. On a remote island near the Arctic Circle, a man viewers come to know only as Friend (David Oakes) has reported for duty as a weather observer. It’s a thankless job, tracking and recording wind speeds, and he’s stuck there for a one year tour of duty.
There’s only one other person on the island, a grizzled lighthouse operator named Gruner (Ray Davidson). The bearded Gruner has an obsession with possession, and he has claimed the island as his own. On the rocks near the only fresh water source, he has carved the phrase, “Gruner owns this fountain.” He is not an easy man to get to know, secretive and given to violent outbursts.
Besides being trapped miles from anywhere with a despotic madman, Friend has another problem to contend with. At night, bipedal amphibious creatures arise from the sea, swarming the island with teeth ready to tear and devour. To make matters weirder, Gruner is keeping one of the monsters (Aura Garrido) as a pet and slave. The thing obviously has intelligence, but Gruner holds it in cowering subservience.
Three’s company, but three people plus hordes of rampaging mutants from the deep is definitely a crowd.
This is a heavy movie, and there is much to unpack. Cold Skin has a lot to say about colonialism, the desire to take a place and make it one’s own, regardless of who or what may already inhabit it. As Proudhon said, “Property is theft,” but what lengths will a person go to claim ownership? It also deals with what happens to isolated people, living with their demons, and how they externalize emotions they aren’t equipped to handle. Abuse and madness are prevalent in Cold Skin, which may make the film a more harrowing viewing experience for some.
As Gruner, it is Ray Stevenson who rules this movie the same way his character exerts control over the island. It is a tyrannical performance, eliciting both fear and sympathy. He has become something less than a man, a monster in human skin, and Stevenson pulls off the madness with grand style. His fuse is short, his emotions swinging from his sleeve, and one never knows what he will do next. Unrecognizable in full body makeup, Aura Garrido gives the creature, Aneris, a life of its own. It is a feat of physicality, all facial expressions and lithe movements, on the level of anything Andy Serkis or Doug Jones has done. David Oakes has the chore of being the audience’s proxy, the one through whom we watch the events unfold. It’s a role that requires him to be pleasantly bland and clueless; as such, he gives a far less nuanced reading to the role than the two other lead performers. That statement is not meant as a disparagement; Oakes does a fine job, and his increasing weariness serves to highlight the surreal nature Friend’s reality has taken on. He’s the Marlow to Stevenson’s Kurtz, and the darkness is rapidly approaching totality.
The term ‘elevated horror’ has been bandied about quite a bit lately, and one could easily expect that label to be attached to Cold Skin. The film doesn’t have the gritty look of a grindhouse movie. The emphasis isn’t on blood or nudity, although both of those elements are present. It has an important, relevant tale to tell. The current thinking seems to be that if a movie is horror, it can’t be good. Therefore, another descriptive phrase must be created and liberally applied. But the horror genre has been giving life to great, thought-provoking stories for centuries by allowing us to face our primal fears and creating allegory through fantastical situations.
Make no mistake. Cold Skin is horror at its finest. And regardless of how one chooses to categorize this movie, it is easily one of the best films I’ve watched this year, and greatness is a label that defies genre.