Perhaps the strangest thing about the latest film from French genre director Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), The Divide) is that it almost works. Almost. Ambitious, bizarre, and strangely philosophical, his creature-driven follow-up to 2017’s grim – and widely dismissed – The Crucifixion swings for the fences, touching on familiar themes but eschewing easy comparisons. In a turn that would seem far more strange if it had been released in a year when The Shape of Water hadn’t just taken home Oscar gold, Cold Skin, an adaptation of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s oft-discussed novel, marries sensational period drama and chilling sci-fi horror in an isolationist thriller that’s primed for a midnight screening at your local art house theater.
It’s 1914, and the not unironically dubbed Friend (David Oakes, of The Borgias fame) journeys to a remote island somewhere in the South Atlantic to ride out the impending World War and serve as the resident meteorologist. The island has but one other inhabitant, Gruner (historical drama go-to actor Ray Stevenson), a lighthouse keeper who doesn’t take too kindly to Friend’s arrival. Though, he soon has bigger fish to fry, as he learns what actually killed his predecessor: an invasion of mysterious amphibious creatures from the murky deep.
The surprisingly atypical script (credited to Jesús Olmo) sets the stage for a much deeper conversation than advertised. It’s rare to see a schlocky horror boasting direct references to the likes of Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche. When Cold Skin succeeds, it is because it is genuinely concerned with the deeper implications of the universe it thrusts the viewer into, rather than simply settling for a handful of cheap scares. Olmo aims for the man-is-the-real-monster brand of horror narrative, and his intellectual ambition clearly outstretches the final product.
However, it would be inaccurate to argue that Cold Skin is an intelligent film. It is head and shoulders above anything else Xavier Gens has directed, but it’s still just as muddled and misguided as his disconcerting résumé would have you expect. This film is sure to lose a fair amount of viewers along the way, even those who willingly signed on for its kooky premise, mainly due to the fact that it flashes glimpses of the superior film that could have been. The creative team knew what they had on their hands – and, in spurts, they do their craft justice – but the philosophical underpinnings fizzle out before they are able to leave a true impact and the zany creature feature feels a bit too familiar to bring viewers to the edge of their seats.
Handsomely shot and clever in isolated beats, Cold Skin is the rare monster movie that leads with its ideology, even if it eventually tips its hand prematurely. Before it gives into predictability and all but grinds to a halt, the film appears to strive for a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, deliberately diving into the Nietzsche quote that opens it. While it may be far from a masterpiece, it is certainly a step in the right direction for Gens.