One of the many highly anticipated feature films at Montreal’s Fantasia 2018 is the man versus sea monster flick Cold Skin. Directed by Xavier Gens, this Spanish/French/UK co-production tells the story of a man–David Oakes, credited only as “Friend”–left on a remote, craggy island as part of his work duty. There is only one other man there, a moody stick-in-the-mud named Gruner (Ray Stevenson), who is confined to a lighthouse. Soon enough, we find out that the island is also home to another guest in the form of a female sea creature (Aura Garrido) wearing a grungy wool cardigan–the pattern of action shows this trio randomly and regularly defending themselves against hundreds of these dangerous, aquatic humanoids.
There is a general tendency to equate stories involving this type of sea creature with classic horror author H.P. Lovecraft and his 1931 story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Recent ventures into this territory include Izzy Lee’s short movie Innsmouth (2015) and Ruthanna Emrys’ novels Winter Tide (2017) and Deep Roots (2018), but Gens’ film makes no specific claim to Lovecraft’s fictional Massachusetts town at all, bringing similar action to the Arctic in 1914. Cold Skin is in fact adapted from an originally Spanish language novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol, showing a microcosm of colonial cooperation, firepower, and fear.
The film reminded me much more of passages from The House on the Borderlands of 1908, by British author William Hope Hodgson. In that story the protagonist had to hold his ground inside a house deep in the woods, battling against a huge brigade of pig men, or the “swine-things” as they’re referred to in the text. The random yet repetitive nature of the sea creatures in Cold Skin is reminiscent of Hodgson’s story, along with a juvenile sense of adventure and fantasy found in many stories of this kind. I don’t think I am spoiling anything when I say that the film doesn’t allow viewers into a more developed and sophisticated culture that these creatures might come from, treating them as more in the tradition of nameless Indians in Western films. We never learn why these creatures attack the lighthouse inhabitants randomly, at night–but then again, we don’t really learn why they attack the men at all. It goes back very much to the basic plot of men arriving in a strange place only to be looked upon with fear and suspicion, leading to violence from one side, retaliation from the other, and repeat, etc. The men in the story might remind the audience of someone like the title character in Charles Brockden Brown’s American Gothic novel Edgar Huntley, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799). Essentially, if viewers like stories from the minds of authors like Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Brockden Brown, then they may enjoy Cold Skin, although the plot structure in the film is about as primitive as the aggressors are portrayed.
One reason for the buzz around Cold Skin is the apparent sexual relationship between Gruner and the female sea creature (who the protagonist names Aneris about halfway through the film). Hinted at in the trailer, the bond between the two characters might not be what viewers expect or want, after the romance and fluttering heartbeats of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017). While Elisa and the amphibian man make sweet, passionate love in a bathroom filled to the brim with water, Gruner and Aneris partake in bestial sex to satisfy their bodies’ needs. There is more to it than that, but it is not worth spoiling here. That being said it isn’t surprising that Gruner displays quite a bit of behavior that some may consider symptoms of toxic masculinity; this often leads to very strange scenes of domestic violence. David Oakes’ character often seems caught between the island’s other two inhabitants, like a child amidst a divorce.
Gruner is a contradictory character whose behavior is often uncannily pertinent. His primary activity appears to be fighting off the sea humanoids from his perch in the light house, yet there is no reason why these battles keep happening except to maintain hold of the bleak structure. He has an opportunity to escape the island with the boat crew who drop off Friend, but ignores it in order to continue his violent and pathological task. He reminds me of someone with an addiction to alcohol or other chemical substances, making bad decisions that only ruin his mental and physical health, although victory or satisfaction appear to be illusions that will only be achieved in death. He is a period piece fantasy version of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino saying “get off my lawn.” However, in this case his lawn is a cold, rock-strewn beach with virtually no humans in sight. He is a frustrating character who induces suffering and anger in himself, Friend, Aneris, and the attacking sea creatures.
It seems like we can glean even less about David Oakes’ protagonist, aside from the hardening of his gentle non-violent character, which is dually challenged as the story goes on with empathy for Aneris. He does fit the mold of the Lovecraftian man well, a curious guy who shows up in a place and having no idea what the hell is going on, left to maintain his sanity under wild conditions. Cold Skin is a movie that audiences may find a lot of fun, although it leaves us guessing as to what the complexities of the situation are. It is not as brutally bloody as Xavier Gens’ past films like Frontier(s), but does have more than enough fantasy action for those who are thirsty for it.