“A beautifully filmed movie with an undertone of social commentary”
After watching Shudder TV’s Cold Skin, I am left thinking that it was better than I expected it to be in many ways, and worse than it could have been in others. I realize that this is a very open-ended statement, but it fits in my opinion nonetheless. Cold Skin (2017) was directed by Xavier Gens who also directed 2007’s Hitman as well as 2011’s The Divide.
Cold Skin is described as a fantasy/horror film which I feel is a fair description. The setting of the film is a stark and nearly empty volcanic island located far away from normal shipping lanes, in the year 1914 just before the start of World War 1. The natural beauty of the island is often overshadowed by the foreboding sense of loneliness and vulnerability of occupying such a desolate and secluded place.
The storyline centers around the main character known as Friend, played by David Oakes who is best known for his role in Showtime’s original ‘The Borgias’ as well as the period history drama ‘Victoria’. Before watching this movie, I was unfamiliar with his work. The second character of the film is a hermit-like Lighthouse keeper named Gruner played by Ray Stevenson, a veteran actor with a whole host of movies under his belt including Kill the Irishman and all three ‘Thor’ movies. Last but certainly not least is Spanish actress Aura Garrido playing the character of Aneris.
Cold Skin starts with Friend arriving at a remote island on the edge of the Antarctic Circle following an extensive journey at sea. Friend is there to replace someone as the island’s official weather observer, living and working for a term of 1 year. Friend is to be based out of a weather-beaten shack for a home which is a fair distance away from the lighthouse. Right from the beginning, Friend finds Gruner the lighthouse keeper to be an impossibly negative and eccentric companion, and it’s clear that the next year will be filled with grim solitude.
WARNING: **Spoilers Ahead**
The relative silence of the lone shack occupied by Friend is soon broken by an attack on the home by an unknown attacker. Friend catches only momentary glimpses of the attacker and is shocked when he observes what appears to be a blue webbed hand reaching under his door. Friend successfully fights off the attacker and hides in the basement to survive the attack by several of these mysterious creatures until the light of day sees him finally able to seek out Gruner for assistance.
Unfortunately, Gruner is less than receptive to Friend and leaves him to fend for himself. Friend prepares himself as best he can with limited resources at his disposal, which thankfully includes a rifle and ammunition. When night falls, Friend observes a multitude of figures emerging from the water and making their way up the beach to his home. A no holds barred battle ensues between Friend and his attackers ultimately resulting in the loss of his home and the destruction of almost everything inside it.
With the knowledge that Gruner knowingly allowed him to remain largely unprotected against a group of fierce attackers, Friend seeks to confront Gruner and seek refuge in the lighthouse. After stealthily following Gruner when he ventures out of the lighthouse, Friend accidentally discovers what appears to be one of the mysterious attackers at a freshwater spring on the island.
Friend is initially horrified at the somewhat reptilian appearance of the humanoid creature whom we later determine to be a female named Aneris. Aneris is the same species that have been attacking Friend and whom Gruner has steadfastly hardened his defenses of the lighthouse against. Aneris is likened to a pet or a possession belonging to Gruner. With Friend threatening to shoot Aneris on the spot, Gruner reluctantly agrees to allow Friend access to the lighthouse in exchange for labor and subservience. This is the moment that Gruner first refers to the frightened weather observer as ‘Friend’.
As the movie progresses, Friend observes many aspects of Gruner’s relationship with Aneris which includes harsh treatment similar to that of a dog, as well as Gruner obtaining his sexual gratification with Aneris. Their relationship is certainly a complicated one and appears to be based on fear and control rather than affection.
At this point, I would like to touch on some noticeable aspects of the film and acting in general. Friend starts the movie seeming like a bit of a delicate male character, which reminded me of the genteel Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The posh English accent, combined with a somewhat refined appearance and book smart type personality adds to Friends’ initial gentle and meek appearance. It was honestly a bit hard to tell if this is due to good acting or if David Oakes naturally possesses those qualities and they simply shine through in his depiction of Friend. The confusing part of Friend’s character is that he seems to jump back and forth between appearing frail and appearing strong and self-assured.
On the other hand, Gruner is shown to be a gruff and slightly unhinged character right from the beginning. Ray Stevenson’s portrayal of Gruner was at times highly believable and sometimes not so much. In Stevenson’s defense, I think one of the things that detracted from the believability of the character for me, was something as trivial as a hairpiece used for Gruners long and unkempt gray hair. For some reason, there were several moments when I couldn’t help but notice that the hairline gave away the fact that it’s not his real hair. The first half of the movie also seems to be a little rough in terms of the believability of Gruner’s character.
This brings us to Aneris played by Aura Garrido. Up until now, I was completely unaware of her work however I was very impressed with her performance. Without so much as a single spoken word, Garrido conveyed waves of emotion and communication using only her body and facial expressions to do so. There are multiple points in the movie where Aneris vocalizes some type of guttural sound or call but I wouldn’t consider it speaking.
The location, set design and physical effects used are all beautifully executed and captured. The cinematography is wonderful with sweeping views of the barren and hostile volcanic rock island juxtaposed with the alluring beauty of the beckoning ocean just beyond it. The main negative issue I had with the movie is its use of CGI. Nowadays CGI has improved to the point where often if done correctly, it can be very difficult to discern CGI over scenes that were filmed in real life. Unfortunately, good CGI can devour a movie’s budget as it takes lots and lots of time , and expertise to get it right. Time is money in movie production and it may not always be possible to achieve what’s needed for a movie without the use of CGI.
There are several scenes where it was necessary to use CGI to multiply the number of creatures attacking Friend and Gruner at night, as well as some scenes which would have been costly or challenging to film, such as when the creatures are scaling the walls of the lighthouse and subsequently being repelled from it onto the jagged rocks below by Gruner and Friend.
Many of these scenes revealed obvious CGI substitutions of computer-generated images in place of physical actors. These scenes appear just as obvious and fake to the viewer as old green screen scenes appeared to viewers in the 60’s and 70’s. Thankfully the scenes pass fairly quickly and primarily are focused on the creatures and their physical movements such as leaping and running on all fours.
The rest of the movie continues with Gruner seeming to spiral further into madness, as well as Friends’ scientific and personal curiosity in learning more about Aneris and her species. All the while the frenzied attacks by the creatures continue to ramp up along with the tensions between Gruner, Friend, and Aneris. There is at least one sequence in the movie that I haven’t mentioned which is completely implausible. I won’t however fully spoil the movie by revealing any further plot twists or storylines. I feel like Cold Skin is a good movie overall and is certainly worth watching for yourself. After all, what do I know, I’m just a guy who loves movies like you.
By the end of the movie, I was left with respect for the acting ability of David Oakes, massive respect for the acting ability of Aura Garrido, and an unchanged but positive view of Ray Stevenson’s acting. I do still feel that some of the CGI used negatively impacted the movie as it momentarily stopped me from being able to suspend reality and reminded me that what I was watching was make-believe. Additionally, there were certainly areas of the movie in which both Ray Stevenson and David Oakes’ performances were somewhat flat. Ray Stevenson is a good actor with a wealth of experience but a couple of scenes just seemed a bit melodramatic and subpar compared to what he’s capable of as an actor.
There was also the fact that Friend seems to go back and forth between being brave and capable during some scenes and then appears frightened and incapable of protecting himself on other occasions, with no obvious reason why. Those contradictions were evident and didn’t make sense in the overall storyline. Those questionable moments from both male actors seemed to be primarily in the beginning half of the movie so perhaps it comes down to the amount of chemistry the actors felt in regards to their characters as well as to each other.
If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend Cold Skin as a fun fantasy/drama to watch. It is truly beautifully filmed and scored. It wasn’t a scary movie in my opinion so much as it is an exciting and creative Fantasy film, with an underlying commentary on issues such as physical isolation and colonialism as a danger to indigenous populations.