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Cold Skin
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by Jay Seaver

"The monsters at the edge of the world."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Cold Skin" is maybe not quite as clever as it could be, but it's a nicely chilly/claustrophobic piece that holds up with two or three characters at a time - although its horror does involve a horde or ten. It's got a more literary feel than many horror movies, and the literature is that of a different era to boot. It does not always live up to its ambitions, but the attempt is usually interesting.

That era would be the early twentieth century, 1914, when a scientist named Friend (David Oakes) has accepted a post as "weather observer" on an Antarctic island, with months of recording the winds and tides and no company but the keeper of the lighthouse. That man, Gruner (Ray Stevenson), does not seem particularly friendly; he has not only decided not to greet his new neighbor but has made his tower a fortress. Why soon becomes clear, as an army of amphibious humanoids overruns Friend's station, forcing him into the lighthouse and an uneasy coexistence with Gruner. Which is to say, Gruner and Aneris (Aura Garrido), one of the creatures whom Gruner has captured, dressed in clothes, and treated as, well, a bit more than a pet.

But let us not use the euphemisms that Friend might have, should this story have been told in true Victorian fashion as entries in his diary - Gruner is having sex with that merwoman, even though he refuses to say that she is more than an animal. It allows the filmmakers (and, presumably, original novelist Albert Sánchez Piñol) to mash a number of high-minded themes together with traditional romantic structures in interesting ways, as the audience's growing belief that Aneris is, in fact, a thinking creature allows the hint of a love triangle to form, and although Friend is clearly preferable in that arrangement than Gruner, it also brings in all the baggage of colonial powers expanding into areas they see as populated by "savages" - the Gruners are clear in their desire to exploit or exterminate, sure, but the Friends can be at best patronizing, their professed love a chance to demonstrate their professed nobility and open-mindedness, which can certainly disappear when the natives decide they want no invaders on their island.

They're elemental roles, but the cast fits them nicely. David Oakes presents Friend as somewhat modern but not anachronistic, a mostly-sympathetic character who has just the sort of romanticism that can plausibly motivate a months-long stay at the end of the world, and he gets Friend's occasional spikes of nervousness over the whole situation across well. Ray Stevenson, meanwhile, does a quality tough guy, and more importantly always seems able to put across that this sort of tough-guy posturing is usually driven by fear without having a complete collapse into paralysis (mania is a different story, and he does that well). Of course, the mute, non-human character is the one that has the best chance of grabbing the audience's attention, and Aura Garrido does good work as Aneris. She often seems to move and dart about with animal curiosity and skittishness, but not necessarily like any specific animal. There's intelligence to her gazes, but not enough that she demands equal footing with the humans; Garrido certainly gets curiosity and clear emotions through the makeup.

There aren't many (any?) other sea-people that get fleshed out enough to be considered a character, which has its pros and cons, as the more mysterious they are, the more general the lessons to be drawn from Friend and Gruner fighting them. At times they can come across as a way to keep the conflict between the main pair at a background simmer, but if that's all they are, they're good background, and Gens and his crew make the most of them, staging perilous combats that keenly highlight the humans' fear of extermination, and often twist midway by pulling in their personal drama. The crew does well to make the Canary Islands feel like Antarctica, and the environment seems properly worn down by cold.

In some ways, the film comes up with some of its most interesting bits too late to really expand on them - the Prometheus symbolism toward the end seems like the start of another film rather than the end of this one - probably weighting it more toward pulp than the cerebral horror of its best ambitions. It's good pulp, though, and certainly smart enough to be worth a little thought afterward.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32417&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/30/18 07:49:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  07-Sep-2018

UK
  N/A (15)

Australia
  N/A (MA)


Directed by
  Xavier Gens

Written by
  Jesús Olmo
  Eron Sheean

Cast
  Ray Stevenson
  David Oakes
  Aura Garrido



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