The worlds of myths and legends can often create a very cool place for Edwardian horror. The genre doesn’t get the representation it often deserves outside of the one-off Guillermo Del Toro film here and there. However, Lovecraftian horror can be extremely intriguing and special when pulled off correctly. That is what “Cold Skin,” a new film from Xavier Gens is attempting to bring to life. While there are times where the film achieves the slow burn horrific aesthetic it reaches for, a combination of being 15 minutes too long and some minus performances brings the film down.
“Cold Skin” follows Friend (David Oakes) a young man set to a position in the middle of nowhere. Friend is assigned to help guard a lighthouse on the edge of the Antartic Circle. The only other inhabitant on the island is one Gruner (Ray Stevenson), who seems to be a noble savage of a man living on the edge of the world. He is disconnected and odd, but quickly takes shelter as the night approaches. Almost immediately Friend understands why, as scaley creatures emerge from the depths and overrun the island. As Friend learns more about the island, he begins to realize the creatures are not always motivated to kill, as he befriends a female held in the care of Gruner.
The film has some very cool aesthetics early that help put you in the mood for the film. Gens does an excellent job of establishing the hopelessness and scarcity of the island. This is a world completely disconnected from the war on the horizon. Yet the war that Gruner and Friend wage every night is just as destructive to their minds and bodies. Gens brings this lonely existence to life through the drab imagery that becomes monotonous over the course of the film. Yet the monotone grays and blacks of the ocean and land are exactly the point. This helps to sell the visual ambition of the film early.
Stevenson digs deep here to give a surprising performance. He brings every ounce of charisma to the screen which helps the film become as successful as it gets. There’s a violence in his eyes that makes him a clearly broken man, yet there’s something deeper there. Unfortunately, we never truly see Stevenson flex his range because the screenplay never asks for him to go deeper. Instead, we see a man possessed by hate and he stays at this level for almost the entire film.
While Stevenson may bring it in his performance, Oakes does not. This partially stems from how the role was written as he introduces us to the world. However, writing him so blank leaves him without much space to have an individuality we need from this kind of character. Instead, we’re left with a nearly empty vessel as our protagonist, which is anything but interesting. The combination of screenplay and performance lets us down, and in a two-hander like this one, it makes the film a rather tough sit.
While the film is only 108 minutes in runtime, it should probably have been shaved by at least 15 minutes. The pace in the middle of the film grinds to a halt and makes the film tough to bear with. The editing could have helped move it along here. The script doesn’t do the film any favors. By dropping the cast to essentially two characters, we are able to get some interesting interpersonal fighting. However, the creatures feel underwritten, even as they hold the mystery to the island. Sadly, you can predict the twists from the story far from the conclusion of the film, making the treachery at the heart of the story a bit of a letdown. Adding a few more characters may have helped bring more out of the moments in the films.
While ‘Cold Souls’ has high ambitions, it falls a little flat. Whether the screenplay or the performances create the letdown, the film undeniably drags in the middle. While Stevenson does his best to make the film an interesting experiment, there’s not enough going on in his character. This feels like a good place to build from for Gens, but it seems unlikely he’ll be able to tackle more subject matter like this. However, if you’re in the mood for a slow burn monster story, there are far worse films to check out.