Title: Under The Skin (2013)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walther Campbell & Jonathan Glazer (screenplay), Michel Faber (original novel),
Starring: Scarlet Johannsen, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor MacKay, Dougie McConnell
Label: Studiocanal UK
Release date: 28th July 2014
Video format: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Soundtracks: DTS-HD MA 5.1: English
Subtitles: English HOH
Runtime: 108 mins
No. of discs: 1 x BD-50
Region Coding: Region B
Rating: BBFC 15
Buy here: Amazon UK
An alien entity inhabits the earthly form of a seductive young woman who combs the Scottish highways in search of the human prey it is here to plunder. It lures its isolated and forsaken male victims into an otherworldly dimension where they are stripped and consumed. But life in all its complexity starts to change the alien. It begins to see itself as ‘she’, as human, with tragic and terrifying consequences. Under The Skin is about seeing ourselves through alien eyes.
Jonathan Glazer is on track to outdo Vincenzo Natali for quality output over quantity in a career making sinister pictures predicated on unease whatever their ostensible genres – this is his third in 13 years, to Natali’s six. There are some interesting comparisons to be made between the Canadian and British auteurs, but we’ll save that for down the pub; let’s talk about the divisive response to this film, and why your blogger considers it one of the best horror films in years, as well as one of his films of this year.
First, however, it is probably useful to Dark Side readers if we run through what this is not. If you don’t like films by David Lynch, Nic Roeg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Stanley Kubrick, Vincenzo Natali or Shane Carruth, then this one is not for you. If you did not like Glazer’s earlier films or only liked Sexy Beast for the performances and its genre, then this is not for you. If you have only ever seen Scarlett Johansson’s mainstream work or media presence, then you may be coming to this film with expectations it cannot meet. If you don’t believe good films can be made that almost completely re-work the source literature, then this is a film that will not appeal. Members of the “music video directors shouldn’t make movies with artistic pretensions” club need not apply. And if you like your film and television explained to you on-screen, or believe that these media should only entertain, then this will not be a film for you.
For those of you who are left: Glazer has now confirmed his status as one of the U.K.’s finest auteurs working in cinema today with this adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel. His creative choices across the board – in production design, lighting, editing, composition, music, performance and so on – make clear his command of the medium in every sense. Film is indeed collaborative, but the stylistic and thematic through-line across his works stands out clearly now. This is someone intent on giving your mind all the information it needs via eyes and ears to understand the feelings, the emotions, of those you see on screen, to grasp, even associate with, the experiences they are undergoing. Naturalism and realism are here placed at the service of a science-fiction/horror narrative, all there to make the latter convincing in a way that traditional styles of performance and visualisation might fail to do.
For those needing guide points, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Lost Highway and a dash of Species can all be discerned in the DNA of this film, but it is resolutely its own thing. The mood is hypnotic, thoughtful, gloomy, allowing for the moments of fear to register. This is not a film possessed of jump scares, although there are a couple of serious jolts at carefully-selected points in the story, ones that work all the more intensely for being doled out so rarely. Glasgow and the coast and highlands of Scotland are used in the way Westerns or the darker side of “adventure” films (think Peter Weir’s films) do – reducing human activity down to match a scale more accurate to how we live and die in the midst of the immense natural world. Contrast this with so much cinema intent on foregrounding our emotions and experiences on a giant screen.
The film still focuses intently on human interactions, delivered in close-up via hidden cameras. Johansson’s character, her literal alienation and how her experiences transform that to something more human, is a stunning feather in her cap as well as representative of so much about the co-existence of men and women in some societies. The choice is there to read deeper still with regard to other genders also. The flawless upmarket English accent she has perfected over several English characters has never been more effectively employed than here, in contrast to the Glaswegian accents around her, adding another layer open for interpretation. That this actress has delivered this performance in the same span of time as audiences have seen her in Don Jon, Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Chef is firm rebuttal to those who accuse her of lacking either range or power. Clearly, she has both and much more besides in her creative arsenal.
It has to be said that the film might not have the same impact if each and every role had been cast with professional actors. The unadorned interactions with Johansson are crucial to establishing the believability of what is going on, especially those moments as they become the lambs being led. Her strength and development comes from these encounters, and gradually culminates in the final moments of the film, an apocalypse in miniature, a finale both horrifying and yet somehow transcendent. One is given to reflect on the life we have witnessed on the screen and what that means. This is a film immersed in the dark side of existence, one which can depress as it amplifies existential terror. It is not for everyone, but for those it connects to, it is exactly that which we know cinema has always been capable of, but we have not seen in some time now, and in the 2014 theatrical landscape it shines out like the Eye of Sauron, casting a darkness across the land but which may yet inspire hope if young film-makers take to heart the lessons from this true British auteur.
The Blu-ray disc from Studiocanal UK is first-class, with sublime video and audio conveying Glazer’s team’s work in the best way possible. Considering the various sources used to make the film, the mastering and grading have done a fine job of smoothing out the differences; blacks, crucial to this film, are everything they should be and more besides. The weight of the sound mix is very much towards the hugely unsettling score from Mica Levi (of U.K. indie outfit Micachu and the Shapes) and the few crucial effects and amplifications of live sound. The extras are individually short, but add up to over an hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes interviews and footage that cover just about everything to do with the production in some detail. All in all, it’s a great package for a great film – kudos to Studiocanal UK.
One of the best films of the year, this has, along with Oculus, restored this blogger’s faith in the horror genre after a seemingly endless stream of no-budget found-footage/faux-doc crapfests lacking ambition, style, intelligence or professional competence. Under The Skin cements Glazer’s place amongst British directors as a true auteur in complete command of the medium, and we can only hope that whatever he turns his hand to next, we the audience are not made to wait as long before it finds its way on screen. It also proves once more that Johannson is an acting force to be reckoned with, a willing collaborator with her directors in exploring herself, her public image and the world around her through her characters. Studiocanal UK’s disc is a great way to experience the film – but don’t be surprised if one day it finds its way into the Criterion Collection.