Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Xavier Gens
Writer: Jesus Olmo
Producer: Denise O’Dell, Mark Albela
Stars: Ray Stevenson, David Oakes, Aura Garrido, John Benfield, Winslow M. Iwaki, Alejandro Rod, Ivan Gonzalez, Ben Temple
A weather official stranded on a remote island with a strange lighthouse keeper uncovers a disturbing evolutionary secret.
Relative to the mutton-chopped sailors with sun-leathered skin aboard the same steamship, ‘Friend’ (it’s what Ray Stevenson’s character later chooses to call him, and ‘Friend’ doesn’t deem another name necessary) can be considered baby-faced. Unsullied idealism widens optimistic eyes further. His is a candle aching to be extinguished once Friend faces the harsh realities waiting at his dreary destination.
It’s September 1914. Friend has accepted a post on a remote island where he is to replace the lone weather official for a 12-month period of solitude and wind charting. Curiously, the man he is meant to relieve is nowhere to be found. The island’s only other inhabitant, a grizzled lighthouse keeper who refers to himself in third person as Gruner, claims typhus took the meteorologist. Gruner’s couldn’t-care-less social skills (he greets Friend with nothing on his body but the sea breeze) have no interest in elaborating.
The transport vessel sails away, leaving Friend alone in the weather official’s former cabin. There, Friend finds a journal of exposition scribed by his predecessor. “Darwin was wrong,” warns the diary. Inked illustrations of amphibious creatures accompany those ominous words. During a predictable jump scare moment, of which “Cold Skin” thankfully has few, Friend gets a firsthand glimpse at one of these hybrid grotesqueries when it peeks through a peephole into Friend’s hiding place.
Friend’s second run at getting info out of Gruner doesn’t go any better than the first. Doomed to his own devices, Friend retreats to his wood-walled abode and arms up against a second attack. This time, a horde of fearsome frogmen descends on the domicile, forcing Friend to survive by burning it to the ground.
Desperate for shelter, Friend strikes a deal with Gruner to billet in the lighthouse only to discover he isn’t the grim man’s only roommate. Gruner domesticated a female creature he keeps as both a pet and a concubine. There’s little time to mull over the meaning of that relationship however. The invasion Friend repelled 24 hours ago is about to begin again, as it does every nightfall when the frogmen assault the lighthouse. Documenting tide levels suddenly became an inconsequential concern. Friend has unknowingly allied himself with two equally yet differently strange participants in an interspecies conflict he never imagined possible.
To a lesser extent because of its first-person narration, to a greater extent because of its origin as author Albert Sanchez Pinol’s 2002 novel, “Cold Skin” emanates a literary aura. The awfulness of loneliness coupled with Innsmouth insinuations wraps Lovecraftian themes within gothic Mary Shelley melodrama. Director Xavier Gens’ adaptation weaves a movie about mankind and monsters (who is the bigger beast?) from atmosphere more than action, another chief contributor to the library-like tone.
Setting, setup, and the parentage of a French and Spanish coproduction season a vaguely British feel with foreign flavors that tease arthouse ambiance. “Cold Skin” doesn’t succumb to the stuffiness of too much suggestive suspense or romanticized horror however, as Gens finds filmic ways to mix mood with traditional creature feature trappings as well as spectacle.
Transporting us to icy isolation alongside the two men and their unlikely companion requires immersion achieved with setpieces made more impressive by being born of a modest budget. Close-ups occasionally reveal stone lighthouse blocks as the kind of foam rocks Disneyland uses to decorate dark rides. But when the camera submerges beneath frigid waters for a breathless deep dive, or amplifies an engulfed cabin illuminating darkness with a bright blaze, “Cold Skin” gives off the cinematic scent of an overachieving effort that cares not for the constraints of its checkbook, and is better off for exploiting that ego. The film has both, yet inspired scenes outweigh forced ones to create a textural fantasy an invested audience can truly feel.
Ray Stevenson and David Oakes mirror that push-pull between inspired and forced while sharing the main spotlight. Stevenson has scenes where his “I don’t want to be here” attitude could come as much from the actor as it does from his character. More often than not by a mile, Stevenson’s steeliness capably sells Gruner’s exterior gruffness in addition to his interior torment. Oakes has the less complicated arc, doing a fine enough job of alternating between meek and militant as mandated by the plot’s progression.
Aura Garrido sneakily steals the show from both men as Aneris, the web-footed woman from the sea. One movie makes it too soon to crown her as competition for Andy Serkis or to put her in the running for Doug Jones’ female counterpart. But Garrido’s animalistic motions mixed with humanistic emotions are as good as it gets for creature performers. Without her mesmeric work, “Cold Skin” couldn’t chew the introspective content it bites off to mull over between mouthfuls of monster mayhem.
The alpha male confrontation doesn’t make for the most sustainably engaging narrative dynamic. Neither does repetitive exposition provided by copious quieter moments. When Xavier Gens remembers to save some of the energy applied to frenzied CGI sequences though, he instills his movie with infectiously imaginative fiction. It bears the weight of its printed page DNA in places it shouldn’t. Yet “Cold Skin” captures coldness, creepiness, and cerebral tension in amounts that equal enticing entertainment.
Review Score: 70