The little indie gem that I chose to discuss for Indie Horror Month is Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2014), starring Scarlett Johansson and based on the novel of the same name by Michel Faber. Although indie films, regardless of their genre, have existed for many decades, I truly believe that A24 has made their mark as the face of the modern indie film—especially the horror indie film. The company's fingerprints can be spotted on many of the indie horror films that we have deeply enjoyed for over nearly a decade now.
The VVitch (2015), Midsommar (2019), Hereditary (2018), It Comes at Night (2017), just to name a few, tell their stories in a way where the audience can read what is going on as either a slow-paced drama or a slow-paced horror story. If watched on just a surface level, A24 films have a reasonably understandable plotline. However, if the audience peels back that surface level, there are almost always a lot of very disturbing themes and ideas to unpack. Let's discuss both the surface level and the deeper meaning of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.
Under the Skin tells the story of an extraterrestrial being who has crash landed on planet Earth—an environment that it isn't sure will be welcoming or hostile. The alien disguises itself as a female-presenting human to lure unsuspecting male-presenting humans into its trap so that it can turn the victims into meat to later be consumed. The story ramps up slowly, which gives the audience time to fully immerse themselves in this little Scottish town. Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell take us into the lives and homes of the townspeople, showcasing their personalities as well as their struggles, hopes, and dreams. The Scottish landscape, the quaint farmhouses, and sheep running around are all gorgeous to look at. The warmth from some of the characters here is a stark contrast to the coldness of Johansson's character. I use the word “some” because there are characters in this film who are absolutely abhorrent. So, I do need to give a warning to readers that there are brief moments of SA and violence, especially during the film's ending, which I will also discuss a little later.
There isn't a lot of dialogue from the alien, but it is obvious—for the most part—what it is thinking. It is always trying to understand Earth and navigate the people on it to get what it wants. The style of the film is very minimal, especially when we are brought into the alien's "lair." The black and silver color palette adds to the cold and methodical way in which it operates. At the same time, it also feels calming inside the lair, as if done on purpose to pacify the victims as they meet their demise. As a human being, I felt conflicted watching it lure people to their death. But, when you really think about it, is the alien in the wrong? After taking some time to think about it, my answer is, I don't know. Is a spider wrong for eating unsuspecting flies or other insects? Is a snake wrong for eating a mouse? Are the humans who eat meat wrong for eating other animals? If the goal is to consume food ethically and humanely, then the answer to those questions is yes. It is wrong because there isn't anything humane about how any of these animals are consumed. But, how do you judge a spider for being a spider? Before going even further down the philosophic rabbit hole, let's segue to the next topic of discussion for Under the Skin.
So, I mentioned in the intro that there is a surface level plot to Under the Skin. The story is pretty straightforward: an extraterrestrial lands in a small Scottish town and begins luring people off to its lair to be eaten. For the film's runtime, we see it do this time and time again. Occasionally, it encounters a townsperson and is invited over for dinner or is offered a place to sleep for the night. It is these moments when the alien learns and adapts to human living. It doesn't very much enjoy human living, though. I gather that it is confused as to why we would want to live the way we do. However, the true message behind Under the Skin is a lot darker than the surface plot might lead you to think. There is a scene on the beach that is incredibly hard to watch, where the alien encounters a baby that has seemingly been abandoned. After some thought, it decides to leave the baby alone on the beach. It doesn't take the baby somewhere safe because it doesn't care about the baby's safety. Or maybe it thinks that it is better off not living on Earth at all.
The alien presents as a human female and it feeds on male-presenting humans. That feels purposeful. Perhaps the alien feeds on a specific type of human being based on what it sees. Luring people to its lair is very easy, so it thinks that presenting males are easier to manipulate. Its victims make themselves easier targets because they too are only acting on what they see. They see a presenting female they find sexually attractive. To the audience's horror and to many, many people in real life, it is when someone is allowed under our skin—where they see the real us—that we get hurt or sometimes much worse. Sex and gender are a lot more complex than what we can see on the outside. Our personalities and experiences are a lot more complex than what we can see on the outside. It's under the skin where we get closer to a full picture of who a person is. Towards the end of the film, the alien wakes up in a forest to find a logger SA it. While trying to run away to protect itself, the logger catches up to it and attempts to continue the SA The logger accidentally rips off a part of the alien's skin and in a fit of rage and confusion lights the alien on fire—burning it alive.
Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is a slow burn, but it is paced that way to immerse the audience into the story. Once someone gets under your skin, they can see the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. I would like to remind readers of the more upsetting things that happen in the film. Although I don't think that S.A. and violence needs to be shown in order for the art's message to be conveyed, it was important here to show what actually does happen to many people all over the world for a number of reasons. The Scottish landscape is gorgeous and most of the townspeople are interesting to watch. Their backstories help make the town feel lived-in and relatable. Mica Levi's subtle score is well done and strategically placed at just the right moments. In conclusion, the philosophic elements of the film will lead you on a journey that maybe you've always started—or maybe not at all—but is definitely worth taking.
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