What would it be like to live in almost complete isolation? Cut off from the world, perhaps only one other person for companionship? How could that affect one’s mind? What could it make one become? To some, the idea has great appeal. However, what makes it so attractive at first may not be the solace that one sought in the loneliness.
Cold Skin is the story of an unnamed man (David Oakes) who is brought to an isolated island near the Arctic circle in 1914 just before the start of World War I. He’s to take the post of weatherman on the island for one year. The only other person on the island is the lighthouse technician, a man named Gruner. When the ship bringing him arrives on the island the young man is escorted to shore by the captain of the vessel that brought him. They drop off all the necessary provisions for his survival for a year and go looking for the weatherman that the young man is replacing.
They do not find the weatherman in his house. They search for a time to no avail and then head to the lighthouse. There they find only Gruner (Ray Stevenson). Gruner is surly, rude, unkempt and has no interest in them beyond whether they brought any liquor with them. He does inform them that the weatherman died sometime before from typhus.
The captain distrusts Gruner; his appearance and attitude mark him as dangerous to the seasoned sailor. He warns the unnamed young man not to stay, but the young man will not be dissuaded. So the captain leaves him and the young man begins to store his provisions in the house’s cellar and to repair the damage neglect and the elements have wrought on the structure.
He settles in quickly and begins his duties, noting the weather conditions in a log and exploring both the island and the notes left by the late weatherman. He discovers drawings in the notebooks of the dead man. At first, they are of things on the island--the lighthouse, a whale’s skeleton, lizards, birds, and the like. The drawings become darker and more sinister as the young man leafs through them. Soon they show strange beings, half-man and half-fish.
That night the young man hears strange noises outside. He realizes that someone is out there. He assumes it’s Gruner. Just then, a webbed hand reaches under his door. He’s shocked and frightened but manages to secure himself in the cellar before the creatures break-in. From the safety of the cellar, he watches the strange creatures as they ramble through the house looking for him.
The next morning the fish-men are gone. The young man comes out and takes stock of the damage and what, if anything, he has to defend himself with. He finds a rifle and a case of ammunition. However, even with a rifle, he knows he cannot live like this; the house is too open to defend alone.
He heads to the lighthouse to find Gruner. The hermit-like man will not open the door and the lighthouse is more like a siege tower than a beacon, Gruner having lined it’s heavy stone walls with spikes and caltrops to prevent anything from getting up its sides to the catwalk around the light itself.
Unable to secure Gruner’s aid, the young man returns home to prepare for the night that is coming. He gathers fuel and digs a trench around the house. That night the creatures come again. He shoots a few, but there are dozens of them. So he tosses a lit torch out the door. It lands in the trench and ignites the fuel, thus creating a ring of fire around the house and driving off the beasts. However, it also sets fire to the front of the house forcing the young man to flee.
The next day the young man, now homeless, sifts through the rubble. His supplies are intact in the underground cellar, but he has nowhere to live. He spies Gruner, out of his lighthouse/fortress, gathering water from a nearby spring. He confronts him, turning his rifle on Gruner to force him to let him into the lighthouse. The young man is surprised to find that Gruner has one of the creatures with him, a female (Aura Garrido). She is clad in rags and cowers at the lighthouse keeper’s every word. The young man starts to shoot her, but Gruner stops him, telling him she is tame and should not be harmed. When the young man capitulates, Gruner’s attitude changes. He declares that he will now call the young man ‘Friend’ and that he is welcome in the lighthouse, but he must help defend it from the attacks of the fish-men.
The pair form an uneasy alliance as Friend moves into the lighthouse with Gruner and the fish-woman. Their relationship changes over time as it becomes clear that Gruner is nearly mad with his hatred of the fish-men. It also appears Gruner has more than a friendly relationship with the fish-woman. Friend develops a rapport with the fish-woman as well and names her Aneris.
Gruner is not blind to Friend’s growing relationship with Aneris and his madness begins to take an even darker turn as jealousy enters the mix. Will Friend and Gruner survive until the relief boat comes in a year, or will they succumb to the nightly attacks of the fish-men, or perhaps their own worst natures?
Cold Skin is as much a psychological drama as it is a horror story. Stevenson is brilliant in his portrayal of the deeply disturbed lighthouse keeper Gruner. David Oakes is equally talented playing Friend, the man who came to the isolated island to get away from conflict, only to find himself in a bitter war for his own survival.
Perhaps the most amazing performance of the film though comes from Aura Garrido as Aneris. The film uses a combination of CGI and practical effects to create her character, much as was done for Andy Serkis when he portrayed Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. She never speaks a word during the film, yet her acting speaks volumes, always clearly showing what Aneris is feeling and what she wishes to communicate.
The film’s isolated Arctic island location is also a key feature of the story. It doesn’t just show the isolation of their situation, it mirrors the darkness of the men’s souls. As one begins to find redemption, beauty appears on the island, as the others madness deepens, winter comes to the land.
So if you would like to see a film that is both a creature-feature horror story and a complex, psychological drama about love and jealousy, then check out director Xavier Gens’s Cold Skin. It’s an intriguing film that goes beyond what you might expect from a film about killer fish-men.