★★★ out of ★★★★★
Because who doesn’t love fish people?
It was the trailer for director Xavier Gens’ (The Divide, The ABCs of Death) Cold Skin that grabbed me. With sweet promises of nocturnal, aquatic invaders and a heavily fortified lighthouse, it beckoned. With its siren song of brooding, Lovecraftian atmosphere it called to me and I embraced it. Eagerly, in fact. Until I found out it mostly just wanted to mope around the house watching re-runs of old war movies.
“But, but,” I hear you saying. “Fish people! Fish people are in!”
You’re right! Obviously, you’re right. It’s got some great fish people, so it’s not as bad as I may have made it sound. I was just a bit disappointed with how it used those fish people. Let me try to explain.
The movie started out great! It’s 1914, and a young meteorologist (David Oakes) is heading to a remote chunk of rock in the middle of the ocean to relieve the previous meteorologist stationed there. When he gets there, though, there’s nary a meteorologist to be found. The only other person on the island is Gruner (Ray Stevenson) the grouchy, domineering lighthouse keeper of questionable hygiene. We learn from Gruner that the previous academic died of typhoid a while back so that’s that. Our new arrival moves into the only building on the island that isn’t a lighthouse and starts to unpack.
The film does a good job letting the solitude of the island sink in. Once the ship leaves and our stalwart scientist (who goes by the name “Friend”, of all things) is truly there for the duration, the place begins to feel ever-so-slightly oppressive. To make matters worse — or better if you’re a fan of movies that dabble in Things We Were Not Meant To Know — our friend, Friend, finds the drawings and journal of the previous weatherman. Drawings and writings depicting strange things and giving ominous clues like, “Darwin was wrong.”
That night, a pack of typhoid sneaks in from the ocean and tries to kill our young meteorologist. Wait a minute… typhoid doesn’t work that way. Those are fish people! Friend makes it through that soggy sortie and actually manages to do pretty well until he accidentally burns his house down. After a bit of negotiation, Gruner agrees to let Friend become his new roomie. Things get a little tense when Friend first meets Gruner’s other roomie/girlfriend/pet, Aneris the fish person (Aura Garrido), but they work it out. The trio settle into the well-secured lighthouse and begin the mildly repetitive descent into what made the movie a wee bit disappointing.
I love a good, slow burning movie; let the atmosphere get thicker and thicker with oppression and mystery and dread and I’m on the edge of my seat. The beginning of Cold Skin did that very well. Once everyone moved into the lighthouse, unfortunately, it shifted gears to a war movie. The trio of characters settled into a routine of nightly battles with the denizens of the deep which, at first, were interesting, but I eventually found the routine a bit too… routine. Sadly, the film seemed to abandon the eerie creepitude it had been working on earlier and went a different direction.
Cold Skin does have its moments. The underwater salvage plan with the World War I era diving equipment was wonderfully done. It’s charming how Aneris puts rocks on everything so things don’t float away. And, the battles with the fish people were entertaining, they just didn’t push the narrative along as well as they could have. As expected, Gens added some provocative material as well — the slight hint of a fish-based love triangle, Gruner’s abusive relationship with Aneris, and, of course, the campaign of genocide against the fish people — with varying degrees of success.
Was it a great movie? Unfortunately, no. Was it a bad movie? Also, no. It just had a lot of potential and it couldn’t deliver. Honestly, though, if you’re looking for a gateway to atmospheric and slightly weird creature features, this would certainly fit the bill. The gore is brief, the sex unseen, and it’s not particularly scary. However, if you’re looking for aeon haunted mysteries, creatures beyond the confines of Nature, and secrets best left unrevealed, you’ll have to re-read your dog-eared Lovecraft books.
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