The year is 1914, the planet is about to crack open under the bloody strain of World War I, and a nameless man played by British actor David Oakes (“The Borgias,” “Victoria”) is sailing towards the ends of the earth in order to get away from it all. Xavier Gens’ “Cold Skin” never tells us much about who he was, or what inspired him to run from it — the film eschews even the hazy background information that Albert Sánchez Piñol provided in his 2002 novel of the same name — but it’s clear that this sturdy, unremarkable bloke has no further interest in violence.
In fact, our hero is so eager for serenity that he’s decided to abandon human civilization for an entire year, agreeing to work as a meteorologist on a uninhabited island in a frigid corner of the South Atlantic. Those familiar with Gens’ previous films (“The Crucifixion” and “The Divide” typifying a grimy collection of horror stories) won’t be surprised to learn that the island isn’t quite as uninhabited as advertised. So begins a gruesome but uncommonly philosophical creature feature that name-checks Nietzsche and Charles Darwin between jump-scares, and hints at a Lovecraftian ambition that it never fully assumes for itself. “Cold Skin” is Gens’ best film to date, if only just good enough to make you wish that it were much better.
The first living creature our hero meets on the island is human, by all accounts (though Nietzsche’s words, quoted on screen before the first shot, caution us to remember that anyone who fights monsters is liable to become one themselves). His name is Gruner (“Thor” sidekick Ray Stevenson), and he’s a bearded shipwreck of a man who grumbles at everything and refers to himself in the first person. His job is to care for the lighthouse, which he’s renovated to look more like Helm’s Deep.
Gruner isn’t much for new friends — though he decides to refer to the protagonist as “Friend” — and so Friend retreats to his own shack for the night… where he’s promptly attacked by an army of bloodthirsty mer-people who look like the love interest from “The Shape of Water,” but darker, less expressive, and even more ripped. On that note, why is it that humanoid movie monsters are never the least bit fat? There are hundreds of the things in “Cold Skin,” and not one of them has even an inch of paunch. For Guillermo del Toro, that may have been a result of trying to sell us on Sally Hawkins’ lust. For Xavier Gens, it feels more like a consequence of cut-rate, copy-and-paste computer effects.
Anyway, Friend quickly figures out what happened to the last meteorologist who was stationed on this island, and moves in with Gruner in the hopes that the two of them might be able to join forces and sail away together. What Friend discovers, however, is that Gruner has no intention of leaving. On the contrary, he wants to stay and kill every last one of the creatures. He’s waged something of a one-man war against them over the years, stoking their enmity by keeping one of their females as a sex slave (brace for several moments that make it clear why “The Shape of Water” had to be about a woman).
Her name is Aneris, and she’s played by Aura Garrido under what often looks to be a gray latex bodysuit. Gruner might treat her like an animal, but it doesn’t take long for Friend to see her as something more. Aneris’ “humanity,” for lack of a better word, reflects and exposes the beastliness of men, to the point where our hero begins to wonder if some kind of peace might be possible between the two species. “We are never very far from those we hate,” he narrates from his diary, “for this very reason, we shall never be close to those we love.” An appalling fact that he eventually decides to address, or die trying.
The premise seems ripe for colonialist overtones, and those who look through at this story through the lens of “the noble savage” will find plenty to see. But “Cold Skin” is less interested in explicating hegemony than it is in defusing it — in pushing back against the same blind fear that filmmakers like Gens naturally tend to exploit. That tug-of-war between terror and discovery is left to the film’s greatest source of tension, as Friend’s alliance with Gruner seldom develops into anything more solid than mumbles, and the nightly sieges against the lighthouse are filmed with a perfunctory sense of going through the motions.
It doesn’t help that it’s so hard to understand how the sea creatures haven’t killed Gruner already, or that Jesús Olomo and Eron Sheean’s screenplay feels obligated to go through the motions of its genre, even when the writers are obviously more interested in getting to the last act. It’s curious how fast the monsters show up (the first attack comes after about 15 minutes), as if the film were trying to outpace our expectations and buy itself the time to deepen this story. But the distended middle of “Cold Skin” squanders that advantage by not better exploring the dynamic between its two human leads and the amphibious creature who comes between them.
While Friend’s evolution from self-protection to pacifism is crystal clear, the character is never able to become anything more than the idea blossoming inside him. Gruner is even less fortunate, though Stevenson does a fine job of shouldering the burden, and even carries the film’s precious few laughs (at one point, Gruner refers to Friend as “lady bird”). And so “Cold Skin” is left to fall back on the sincerity of its beliefs, and the sense of place evoked by its Icelandic shooting locations. Still, those virtues are enough to carry the film over the finish line, as Gens claws ever closer to crafting an experience that fulfills the full scope of his vision for it.
If nothing else, “Cold Skin” leaves us with an unexpectedly optimistic spin on the Nietzsche quote with which it begins: If men are so capable of becoming monsters, then perhaps it’s possible that monsters should also be capable of becoming men.
“Cold Skin” screened at the 2018 Fantasia Festival. It will be released in the United States on September 7, 2018.