Cold Skin feels like it will play out like a war between two species, but it soon becomes clear that the theme of the movie has The Shape of Water vibes, but without any meaningful commentary throughout.
For something that had the potential to be an explosive and dynamic monster horror movie, it ends up muted and rather rudimentary in its themes.
Set in 1914, just after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, a steamship arrives at a desolate island near the Antarctic, where a young nameless man takes up the post of weather observer for a year. His only other companion on this island is Gunther, the lighthouse keeper, who wants nothing to do with anyone, preferring his solitude.
Settling into his new surroundings, the new weather observer settles down for the night. As night falls, he is attacked by a pack of wild creatures. He manages to hide but soon takes an uncomfortable refuge with Gunther. Each night, they seek to fight off these creatures to survive another day.
Visually Cold Skin is a beautiful film and you cannot fault them for the creature effects or special effects. The cinematography is probably better than this story deserves, with the landscape of Iceland and Canary Island giving the movie a haunted look. With a backdrop that emphasizes the treacherous and remote desolation of this island, it is almost enraging that the story cannot match its beauty and loneliness.
The story writing fails here in two ways. First, we have the characters of Gunther and the nameless man who we only know as ‘Friend’ who are rather one dimensional. From what little I know of the novel on which this film is based, it seems that it is rather a close adaptation, which is a shame as the premise seems to be intriguing.
In a film where the story is only as strong as its characters, Cold Skin is a disappointment in storytelling. The writers, Jesús Olmo and Eron Sheean cannot be blamed for this, as it seems from the little I know of the novel that the book’s characters were even more lacking in depth. The nameless man is curious and more humane than his counterpart Gunther who is an abusive sadistic misanthrope.
Cold Skin is the first novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol but this story seems that it would be more fitting as a short story and with that, a short film may have been more impactful. This is especially true with the nightly attacks, which end up losing their potency as the Cold Skin progresses towards the end. Instead, we have to rely on the moral dilemmas of these two characters to keep us engaged.
But like I have said, it does not often anything new or noteworthy other than human beings are just generally terrible. This might have been more provoking in the times Cold Skin is set in, but as a 2002 novel and 2017 movie, we have had a lot more subtle critiques of the violent nature of man. Then we have the sexual violence and temptation that becomes a focus for both men, which is typical for Gunther’s nature but makes Friend’s morals seem hollow.
That’s not to say that both Ray Stevenson and David Oakes don’t put in good performances, as I imagine I would be a lot more critical if the performances were in less capable hands. But they just aren’t interesting characters, and the other character, Aneris, who is a strange creature that unlike the other creatures is rather passive, but manages to be the most compelling of them all. It is rather a shame that this character was used as a prop for a conflict between two men that took centre stage, rather than being a fully fleshed-out character of her own.
Many paths and ideas could have been explored that delved into how she came to stay with the misanthrope. As well as why she continues to stay and only wail when her brethren are being slain every night. Some hints to how this remote war started and how Gunther managed to survive this long without resupply of ammunition, would have added a much richer background.
Cold Skin is a beautiful experience in cinematography that is, unfortunately, let down by a story that touches on ideas but never jumps into the deep waters to make anything of the most shallow statements.
Cold Skin is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.