A story about much more than having sex with fish people. That aspect occupies a sliver of the runtime, is shot with care, and provides intriguing layers to the themes of hate and isolation. While the film may be inspired by Lovecraftian Deep Ones, Cold Skin is foremost a drama; elements of horror are secondary to the interpersonal forces driving the characters. This runs counter, of course, to much of the film’s marketing. Nevertheless, Cold Skin is executed with confidence enough to enwrap you in the mystery.
Director: Xavier Gens
Screenplay: Jesús Olmo, Eron Sheean; story by Albert Sánchez Piñol
Producers: Mark Albela, Denise O’Dell, Lucette Legot
Cinematography: Daniel Aranyó
Editor: Guillermo de la Cal
Music: Víctor Reyes
Select Cast: Ray Stevenson, David Oakes, Aura Garrido
Runtime: 106 minutes
Country of Origin: France, Spain (language, English)
U.S. Release Date: September 7, 2018
That mystery starts almost immediately. A young man (David Oakes) is sailing to a remote south Atlantic island to serve as the new weather observer. The man he is meant to replace, however, has died without a trace. The only other human on the island is a surly, slightly mad, lighthouse keeper named Gruner (Ray Stevenson). Realizing the futility in communicating with Gruner, the weather observer settles into his quarters. There he discovers a left-behind journal detailing a sexual relationship between men and toad-like creatures. Before the night is through, the weather observer’s cabin is besieged by the creatures (dubbed “toads” by the characters). He survives, gaining the ruthless combat skills needed to persevere through subsequent attacks.
Drama ensues, however, when the weather observer (now living in the lighthouse) develops an affection for a female toad, Aneris (Aura Garrido), whom Gruner abuses as a pet and sexual object. Aneris comes to trust the weather observer and together they forge a bond that culminates in the demise of Gruner and the salvation of the island’s toads.
Based on a novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol, the story relates common themes of the human condition such as prejudice, war, isolation, madness, and scientific exploration. Director Xavier Gens wears these on the film’s sleeve, but manages to offset the blunt messaging through a genteel handling of the material; the actors follow suit, delivering tender performances worthy of attention. This sense of respect for the material bleeds into the overall art design. Set in 1914, the sets and costumes drip with sumptuous woods, metals, furs, and leathers. Likewise, no expense is seemingly spared with the design of the toads, who seem a blend of Avatar’s Na’vi and the orcs from The Lord of the Rings; the makeup on Aneris, for example, coupled with Garrido’s physical performance, gives Andy Serkis a run for his money.
Yet despite the top-tier design, camera work, performances, and Lovecraftian monsters, Cold Skin somehow misses the chance to create a truly classic film. While the dialogue is appropriately introspective (featuring rich poetic narration), the story fails to provide enough sympathy for the community of toads. When a tragedy befalls a young toad, for example, the movie demands we cry along with Aneris and the weather observer; however, the movie never dived as deep as it could have into who this young toad is. By extension, the entire toad community is left unexplored and mainly functions as faceless monsters to be exterminated. Great for thrills, less so for humanizing the creatures. Arguably, scenes such as the underwater escapade are where such character work could be made; arguably, that would make the runtime longer than it needs to be.
It may want its cake and eat it too, but ultimately, Cold Skin is a confident film by confident artists; all the pieces come together to tell a serious story about a fantastical situation. Horror, suspense, and action sequences are likewise presented with bold flourishes, but never overwhelm the character drama at the movie’s heart. With that in mind, Cold Skin is recommended viewing for film buffs across genre.
By Vincent S. Hannam
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