Under the Skin (2013) is an unconventional film which blends elements of science fiction and horror. One of its most compelling attributes is the way that it subverts classic horror movie storytelling.
The best horror films are told from a relatable perspective. No matter what the “horror” is, the film makers want the audience to be afraid of it. Tradition causes the screen writers to create characters which audiences can relate to. The film wants the audience to feel like they are the protagonist, and these frightening things are happening to them in first-person. If an audience cannot relate to the plight of the characters in a film, the audience can metally put distance between themselves and whatever is happening on screen. This distance acts as a safety buffer, and reduces the impact of the film.
Why else do we complain so often about the stupid decisions made by horror film characters? Their poor decisions subconsciously remind us that we are watching a movie, and what is happening is not real. In a life-or-death situation, we all believe we would make decisions which would result in the greatest likelihood of survival. Yet horror film characters tend to make decisions to benefit the shock value of the film, not lengthen their lives. It is the same with all of the other cliches we associate with the genre. If you think the killer is actually dead, that old dilapidated house isn’t haunted, or it is just a coincidence that the little kid is kind of creepy – you probably haven’t watched enough horror movies yet.
Therefore, a relatable perspective is among the most important aspects of a traditional horror movie. It serves as a basis on which the film can take hostage of its audience and deliver realistic thrills and chills. Without it, the scares fall flat, and your audience will quickly bore. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to create a memorable, and frightening film. In fact, what if I told you that you didn’t need a relatable perspective in order to create an effective horror film?
Under the Skin doesn’t have a traditionally relatable perspective. At least, not at first. It slowly eases you into feeling partial towards the main character. The film’s protagonist is also its antagonist. At least, she starts off as the antagonist; a deadly alien dressed in curvy human skin to seduce its victims to their demise. She’s a serial killer who takes her victims into another dimension in order to capture them as food. She scours the countryside for the weak, disenchanted, and lovelorn. She takes advantage of them in their weakest moments.
***WARNING – THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES SPOILERS!***
But the film isn’t all deadly rendezvous. While the film’s central character may be on a murder-spree, she is also searching for something herself. She longs to feel the same things as her victims, but is unable to. She wants to feel joys of love, to passion of sex, or to simply eat a slice of cake. But because of what she is, she can’t. Her role is only as the deadly temptress, luring the innocent to their death for the sake of her species’ benefit. And so, as much as the film is about a deadly killer on the hunt for her next victim, it is also about the deadly killer not wanting to be a deadly killer. It is curious as much as it is deadly.
The film depicts this interesting duality through the perspective of the alien/temptress. At first, the audience is taken along on a few of her deadly encounters. We see the cruelty in her work, and the ruthlessness by which she carries it out. She does not seem to have any particular interest in humanity except for their nutritional content. Indeed, the film initially paints humanity in a dim light. We’re too often only looking out for ourselves. We seek short term pleasure, and let our baser natures take command of our more advanced capabilities. We treat those who are different from us badly or ignore them altogether. We appreciate things on a superficial level.
The film’s murky texture helps to further emphasize the seedy behavior of man. The film is dark and very wet. Be it fog, clouds, or puddles of water – everything has an uncomfortable feel about it. The cheery blue sky is always absent, and the deadly unknown could easily be hiding in the mist. The main character lures her victims into a pool of black liquid. The audience watches them helplessly drown in their own desires, over and over. Water trickles down glass and cold temperatures fog up mirrors obscuring our view. Everything is designed to make the audience unsettled.
As such, the world feels heavy and burdensome. When we do get little glimpses of hope and salvation, our main character corrupts them. It is how the film further alienates its perspective from a comforting, traditional protagonist. At a beach, she watches a good Samaritan try to save a couple who are drowning, only to capture the good Samaritan herself. She seduces a lonely man who is disfigured showing him the love he longs for. Later she uses a man who takes care of her and tries to help her. She seems completely disturbed when people try to help her. She doesn’t feel sorry, or compassionate, or forgiving. She is supposed to be a sole-purpose killing machine. That lack of humanity gives the film its initial shock value. But that’s only half of what makes it so frightening.
What makes Under the Skin so frightening is how it twists the audience’s perspective without them even realizing. The character we start off watching, who is so foreign and disturbing to us, gradually becomes ourselves. What was initially unfamiliar about her becomes familiar. When we see her take advantage of others, we become as sorry for her as we do for her victims. By the end of the film, the façade of certainty we had in our views at the beginning has cracked, and our suspicious gaze is turned inward.
At first, the film is somewhat repetitious. We watch the main character as she stalks, seduces, and consumes her victims. These early sequences establish a pattern of behavior. At first they are off-putting and shocking. But gradually, because of the repetition, we become a little bit more numb towards them. This behavior becomes the norm for the central character. Once this happens, we are able to pick up on subtle differences between her attacks, and the outcomes. This technique fulfils the promise of the film’s title.
Before, the actions of the main character were disgusting and off-putting. But once the film’s alien perspective becomes our own, these actions are less divisive and more acceptable. For example, the little changes we see in her behavior begin to paint a picture in our mind of an entity who is more compassionate than we initially realized. Above I outlined some of the seemingly immoral acts of the main character, but with more context they achieve new, more powerful meaning.
Consider the beach scene, which is the most disturbing scene in the film. The main character abducts a man who tried to help two people who were drowning. In this scene, the people he was trying to save both end up drowning, despite his effort. Worst of all, they leave a baby on the beach. The main character doesn’t appear to feel sadness for the child, or the man who just risked his life to save two strangers. Watching this at first, it is easy to label the main character as a cruel, selfish, monster.
But as the film progresses, you can’t help but feel sorry for her in this moment. Here, she witnesses two people with a child. There is genuine love between them, and the man sacrifices his life to try and save the woman. There is no question, his devotion is completely selfless. The selfless quality found in man is further identified in the stranger who tries to save the man and woman. This love for others, even complete strangers is foreign to the main character. She has no notion of the importance of this type of emotion. The blank look on her face makes it clear she feels nothing, despite all of the trauma around her.
This is the turning point in the transition of the main character from something alien, to something resembling a human. From here on, she picks up on emotion. She sees a fly trapped, and it convinces her to release a victim. She sees people talking in the streets, and genuinely interested about the lives of others. She sees a flower vendor bleeding from the thorn of a rose – a sacrifice he gladly makes to help make other people feel better.
These observations help convince her that she wants to become human. But the tragedy is that she is ultimately unable to do so. Looking back at the beach sequence, we see how powerful love can be, and yet the main character is not experienced enough to realize. For this reason, we end up feeling sorry for her. Despite the terrible actions she takes, her motivation comes from a place of naivety. She didn’t know any better.
This does not excuse her actions, but it helps to add meaning to the changes we see as the film progresses. When she seduces the disfigured man, she has bad intentions. He is an easy target, and yet at the last moment she decides to let him go. She shows mercy, and cares for another being. Later, she becomes distressed when she can’t have the same lives and relationships as her human victims. Towards the end, when a man is trying to take care of her, she isn’t playing along just to take advantage of him. She wants to feel his love, and is upset when she is unable to reciprocate.
Sooner or later, you begin to realize how the main character isn’t cruel in a world filled with love, it is the other way around. The world is tough, unforgiving, and filled with selfish fools. The main character longs to be cared for, and to care for others. She just wants to be loved. She realizes the lure of emotion. She recognizes all the ways humans pretend to love, but don’t actually do so. From her outsider perspective, she shows us how fake our actions can be. She was taking advantage of men who just wanted to have sex with her. She sees people putting on makeup to disguise themselves.
She realizes she is part of the problem. Her purpose is to take advantage of this superficiality. She realizes she is stuck between living a life and taking advantage of it. Because she is not human, she is unable to partake. But she can’t just stop what she is doing either. Throughout the film there are men on motorcycles who are essentially the main character’s handlers. They are also aliens, and work to prevent humans from finding out about their operation. They clean up after the main character and make sure that she does not begin to have empathy for the human victims she is hunting down.
On one hand they protect her from harm – but on the other hand they also prevent her from finding any benefit in humanity. So, with this realization, we see how the main character doesn’t really have a choice in what she is doing. If she begins to show empathy, she is retired like the woman we see at the beginning of the film. If she doesn’t show empathy, she has to continue hunting down innocent people.
The final scene of the film is most telling of all. Shocked by her inability to partake in the true emotion of humanity, she runs into the woods where she is eventually raped. As she struggles to escape, her assailant tears at her flesh, ripping her human facade from a cold black alien body underneath. Her attacker is shocked, and disgusted. He was only attracted to her for her looks, not for what she actually is “under the skin”. Also important is the fact that now the main character is being hunted and stripped apart, rather than the other way around.
Just like the film’s perspective, the main character’s role flips 180 degrees. Under the Skin proves how a horror film doesn’t need a relatable initial perspective in order to be successful. Instead, it starts from an uncomfortable place before slowly placing its audience into a more familiar perspective, albeit one which we may not even want to admit is true. The superficiality of the world around us has lasting impacts on every person who ever lived. And for the most part, we are powerless against it.
But what’s probably most shocking is the realization of how the film’s later perspective impacts us more than its former. We watch the main character initially carry out brutal acts, but we are distant because we realize she is an alien – different than us. But when the film reveals how she is actually just like us, the self-realization she struggles with is more relatable. Her unsolvable tragedy is more lasting than the distasteful acts she carries out because those acts are part of what makes her struggle so difficult. It is as if an attacker suddenly experiences the pain of their victims, but is unable to stop attacking. The opposite is also true. The love of her victims – the beauty they find in life, is what ultimately kills her.