Read This Before You Watch “Under the Skin”

This week, as we transition away from our two-month spotlight on films written and directed by women, we’re taking a look at a fairly quiet, independent piece of science fiction horror. Starring Scarlett Johannson, “Under the Skin” (2013) was directed by Jonathan Glazer (better known for 2000’s “Sexy Beast”) who co-wrote the screenplay with William Campbell. The movie is based upon the cult sci-fi novel of the same name by Michael Faber (and his first book, incidentally). Filmed in Scotland, this slow-burn, hypnotic, sexy/creepy thriller was made using some “guerrilla” film making techniques – hidden cameras, hitch-hiking extras who didn’t know they were participating in a film, etc. The film also took almost ten years to make. Glazer started making the movie in 2004. Like many films do, it got shelved in favor of other projects. But Glazer never lost the thread and never gave up on finishing it.

The result is mesmerizing. And sort of befuddling.

This film honestly doesn’t need much describing. Or rather, describing it makes it sound somewhat inane and a lot less strange and unsettling than it feels. Scarlett Johannson plays a space alien (disguised as a human woman) who drives a white van around Glasgow, mostly at night, stopping male pedestrians and asking for directions. Sometimes she offers them a ride, and then, if they’re into it, she invites them back to her place.

They don’t come back. Where exactly these men go, well, that’s a subject for some speculation and discussion.

But, clearly, this movie presents a variation on the “black widow” subgenre, with Johannson as the ultimate seedy, night-crawling femme fatale in her black wig and fake fur coat, but the sci-fi elements make things weirder and more disturbing than they might otherwise be.

The novel, apparently, is satirical and offers more back story on our unnamed protagonist and her mission on earth, but the film remains stripped down to minimalist essentials. In fact, there are times when it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on here.

At the end of the day, I’m not entirely sure this is a horror film, but it’s definitely unsettling and I’m not sure what else to call it. This movie reminds me a lot the sort of experimental science fiction made in the 1970’s by directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”), Andrei Tarkovsky (“Solaris” and “Stalker”), and Nicolas Roeg (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”). In fact, that last one, a 1976 Roeg movie starring David Bowie in his space alien phase, is probably the closest thing to “Under the Skin” that I’ve seen before.

This film is a weird one. I hope you like it, and I’m sure we will have plenty to talk about.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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