29 March 2014


Under The Skin has taken ten years to make, and to look at the end result, it's not hard to see why financiers might have some qualms about greenlighting such a difficult story. True, it's based on an acclaimed novel by Michel Faber, and it features A-list star Scarlett Johansson, but it's also the most disturbing psychological horror I've seen in a long, long time, purely because it doesn't hold the audience's hand and lead them through at all.

It begins with a birthing sequence for an alien disguised as a young woman, who then dons the clothes of another dead girl. She then gets into a white transit van and drives around Glasgow, seducing and then dispatching men for a purpose that is never really explained. Because when you want to make a sci-fi horror for £8 million, it doesn't get much easier to portray an alien in a strange environment than to put Scarlett Johansson in the middle of Glasgow, but that's about the only easy choice the film makes.

So much of psychological horror is effective with Western audiences because of the primacy of sight. While other cultures play up other sensory and spiritual attributes, we rely upon sight more than any other sense, and so the most unsettling horror films tend to play up aspects of their world that aren't shown to us, allowing our imaginations to do the work and fill in the blanks in ways that personally disturb us. Glazer nails this in Under The Skin, and builds an atmosphere of relentless terror into a film that is deliberately measured and glacially paced.

For instance, in the film's most upsetting sequence, a tragedy unfolds in plain view of our otherworldly protagonist, and she does absolutely nothing to stop it, leaving one character completely vulnerable. It's scary enough that she leaves this particular character once, but Glazer's next scene returns to the situation hours later, just long enough to leave us in no doubt about what's going to happen to this character, and the impact of that second cutaway is absolutely devastating. That scene alone will haunt my nightmares, and it's not the only disturbing setpiece of its kind.

Her utter lack of compassion is truly unnerving, as she seduces a string of blokes who can't quite connect the dots and realise this is probably too good to be true. And this is a tremendous showcase for Scarlett Johansson- perhaps the most understated alien succubus ever committed to film, but still she holds nothing back. There are things in here that some actors of her stature might have turned down, but she brings her A-game throughout. She's never been a star who goes for the easy romantic comedy pay cheque, but her recent run of performances (Don Jon, Her and now this) have shown off the creative freedom that her status as a Marvel Studios regular seems to have afforded her.

Elsewhere, the stuff that Glazer does show us is steeped in visual metaphor and semiotics- the things we do see are almost as discomfiting as the things that we don't. And without the understanding that comes so naturally to us with sight, we fall back on other senses, which is where the sound comes in. Mica Levi has composed an utterly terrifying score, full of malice and unearthly foreboding, that flares up and ebbs away at just the right moments to form a pincer movement with the visual disorientation. In short, this is a fucking frightening film.

If there's a better horror film that Under The Skin this year, I'm not sure I want to see it. This one burrowed its way into my brain right from the start, making the most of its relatively low £8 million budget by stressing the human banality of the environment in which it takes place, as compared to Scarlett Johansson's eerie, oblique and dispassionate central performance. Although it's easy enough to follow if you're paying attention, the really scary thing is that so much of it unfolds in your mind, and you find your brain chemistry is surprisingly suggestible when confronted with such a sparse, yet potent sensory assault.

Under The Skin is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Under The Skin, why not share your comments below? Yes, I know Scarlett Johansson's nude in this film, but I think the film actually makes a decent go of scaring off your ScarJo boner for life.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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