It is cold in the south seas at the edge of the Antarctic Circle, a desolate island of volcanic rock where a research position is one breath away from a year of exile from civilisation, but in late 1914 as the supposedly civilised world tears itself apart in the Great War the definitions and madness and sanity are blurred.
A Maritime Weather Officer, Friend (The White Queen‘s David Oakes) has accepted the position but expects to be greeted upon arrival by his predecessor whom he is to relieve; instead he finds the shack deserted and the lighthouse strangely fortified with wooden stakes, while inside the caretaker Gruner (Black Sails‘ Ray Stevenson) unkempt and unconscious.
Gruner grudgingly accepting the presence of another on the island, he states the former officer died of typhus, and as Friend takes up his duties he finds the journals of Aldor Vigeland which chart the sparse flora and fauna of the area but are interspersed with inexplicable comments – “Darwin was wrong.”
As night falls and the lighthouse beam sweeps the coast, Friend realises that it was not madness which drove Vigeland’s observations as the weather station is attacked by amphibious creatures rising from the sea, swarming across the shore with slimy webbed hands and feet. Taking shelter in the basement he is safe until dawn, but it is only the first night of a full year which he must survive.
With its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival’s FrightFest, Cold Skin is directed by Xavier Gens, adapted by Jesús Olmo and Eron Sheean from Albert Sánchez Piñol’s award-winning 2002 novel La Pell Freda, Gens unfortunately being forced to cancel his planned appearance at the festival due to the extreme weather making travel impossible.
Caught between the power of the sea, endlessly churning and concealing unspeakable hidden horrors, and the living nightmare that besieges them every night, Cold Skin is nothing so much as Horror of Fang Rock as dreamed by H P Lovecraft, “demons from Atlantis” rising with the storm and crawling over the rocks to seek warm flesh upon which to feed.
Gruner unforthcoming and unwelcoming to the point of hostility, he accepts Friend into the relative safety of the lighthouse but it is clear there that the arrangement can be rescinded at any time, the reason for his reticence apparent when Friend realises that one of the creatures has been tamed by Gruner, at first appearances living with him as though it was a pet though Friend soon realises to his horror the relationship goes deeper.
Almost a companion piece to The Shape of Water, transposed to another age and hemisphere where it washed up on a shore marked with a bleak and colourless beauty, while the circumstances are similar the cold seas of the south have bred a different kind of creature and a different kind of men who encounter it, but as the wordless yet obviously intelligent companion The Ministry of Time‘s Aura Garrido is fascinating, utterly transformed to a being alien yet of this world.
As men die on distant lands the arrangement between Gruner and Friend reaches an uneasy equilibrium as Friend finds he too must become a soldier himself if he is to survive, an austere frontier friendship developing between the two men which is challenged by Friend’s desire to understand and make peace with the amphibians while Gruner is set on “toad extermination.”
With a dash of Jules Verne thrown in during a tense underwater excursion in salvaged diving gear in the wintery seas, Cold Skin is an unusual film about the unknowable mysteries of distant lands and deep oceans and the men who choose to live in solitude upon them where more is left unspoken than is addressed in the often harsh words between the protagonists.