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Under the Skin (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Under the Skin (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Distributed by Lionsgate


Nearly every ardent film aficionado understands that cinema is highly subjective, with most pictures garnering an equal number of supporters and detractors. Sometimes, half the fun in seeing a new movie is the post-viewing discussion that breaks out among friends over what did and didn’t work. Few films, though, can divide audiences more rapidly than art house movies. Where some viewers key in on subtleties and nuance, others see a pretentious mess that could bore a person to death. You don’t run across many people who have a “meh” reaction to something intrinsically artistic – either they love it and praise it endlessly, or they hate it and can’t spew enough vitriol. One such film that has recently divided filmgoers is writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, which was written by Michel Faber, it’s the tale of an interstellar succubus that travels to Earth for the purpose of luring in lonely men and denuding their bones of flesh via an… unusual method. It has been met with stirring acclaim – it currently holds an 87% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes – though there seems to be an equal number of critics who found it to be a pointless exercise of languid cinema. While at a cursory glance it may be easy to see where they’re coming from, the fact is Glazer’s film is purposely unconventional and a bit obtuse, requiring much deeper thought if viewers want to gain knowledge of its true nature. Nothing is overtly spelled out; it’s all in the subtext.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) arrives on Earth to take the place of her predecessor, who has died under unknown circumstances. What these two “women” share are attractive features that would interest most hot-blooded men, which is essential to their purpose. Johansson (her character is never named) drives the streets of Scotland at night, attempting to pick up on single, unattached men who are more than eager to follow her back to her flat. Once inside the austere, blackened tomb where she resides the men strip down and follow her sultry figure across the room before being enveloped by a viscous liquid that preserves them alive, yet slowly softens their skin before sucking the flesh from their bones. It is not a pleasant way to go, even when you consider their final view of her curvaceous backside. She views humans from an objective perspective, with little regard for their lives and emotions; she is merely a tool here to do a job.

Her nightly endeavors hit a snag when she meets a young, deformed man (Adam Pearson, who looks not unlike the legendary Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick) who is shy and unaccustomed to attention from such a beauty. His grotesque exterior belies the gentle person under the skin, and, so, she begins to learn there is more to humans than just their outward appearance. She decides to let him go. Her experience with this young man changes her perception of not only those around her, but herself; of the body she inhabits. This leads her on a journey of self-reflection and stark realization; a trial through which she attempts to assimilate within the human world, experimenting with food and relationships and sex; things which were once so foreign to her. Constantly shadowed by a male of her species, one who maintains a constant vigil over her affairs and cleans up any messes, she is eventually resigned to the fact that despite her best efforts, she will never enjoy the pleasures our world has to offer.

Plot is secondary here; the story is more concerned with capturing the existential journey an alien takes when confronted with the possibility of becoming something more than what it is. Much like the people around her, viewers are kept at a distance, merely observing her actions without becoming deeply involved. Her purpose on Earth is only vaguely defined – we don’t exactly know why she’s seducing and liquefying these men. So much of the film is left open to interpretation that viewers with a short attention span (i.e., sadly, most of the younger generation) will probably check out early on without considering the messages being conveyed. The title has a double meaning, as it not only refers to there being something more under the skin of Johansson’s character, but also of the film’s depth. A reasonable comparison might be the work of David Lynch (though this film never reaches those lofty heights) because without a deeper evaluation of what’s being shown it would be all too easy to casually dismiss it as artsy, theoretical garbage.

It’s hard to believe any man wouldn’t jump into a vehicle if propositioned by Johansson, but many of the men she preys upon are either uninterested or oblivious to her intentions. If some of the reactions seem rather candid and genuine, that’s because they are. Many of her nightly escapades were shot using hidden consumer-grade cameras mounted in a van, with the actress calling out random men on the street that were only told of the ruse after the shots were completed. It’s a subtle touch that adds an extra layer of realism. Even many of the film’s characters (none of whom are given screen names) were portrayed by untrained actors. The aforementioned young man with severe facial disfigurement? That’s his real face, and his casting is testament to the realism Glazer attempted to achieve. The alien “cleaner” who shadows Johansson’s every move isn’t an actor at all, but a world-class motorcycle racer. The role required someone who could drive at high speeds on slick roads, and rather than use a stunt double Glazer simply hired Jeremy McWilliams, an Irish professional racer, to don the helmet. As a result of these casting decisions, and the fact that most have very little dialogue, the film’s veracity is greatly heightened.

A good film can almost always be elevated by a great score, and the work done here by Mica Levi, aka Micachu (of Micachu & The Shapes), is exemplary. Droning bass lines are punctuated by bursts of Fox string sounds, a technique that has been used for decades to heighten tension and emotion. The score incorporates elements of electronic and acoustic instruments, giving the entire affair an appropriately alien feel. Levi’s leitmotif used during the film’s sequences of seduction is mysterious and sexy, like a lure that emanates from within and puts these men into autopilot. The atonal compositions are hypnotic, easily lulling viewers into a trance. It’s certainly one of the best film scores of the year thus far.

Despite a dearth of major activity, I never found myself bored while watching the film. Sure, Glazer lets himself veer into Terrence Malick territory at times, with long, sweeping wide shots that linger in a fixed position for lengthy periods of time. Thankfully, the Scottish landscape where they shot is so gorgeous that few will be bothered by witnessing its consistent beauty. If some find the film to be cold, well, that was intentional. This is a cold world to an alien being – it’s even cold to those who aren’t alien – and it succeeds in never allowing viewers to feel much comfort. Under the Skin is a stoic reflection of humanity through the lens of the ultimate foreign body. Some of Glazer’s directorial decisions are rather puzzling – with many questions left entirely unanswered – but for those who enjoy films that aren’t wrapped up in a neat package by the time credits begin rolling this is a cerebral experience that feels satisfactory. It may not be perfect, but it certainly is unique in a sea of homogenized cinema.

Viewers must keep in mind that the film’s 1.85:1 1080p image was produced using a variety of cameras, and so the results are going to vary from scene to scene. The color palette veers toward steely, blue hues with saturation stripped down in other colors. The muted aesthetic was intentional, as was the decision to shroud most of the film in a state of near-darkness. Black levels are inky and deep, aside from a few cases where contrast was boosted on purpose, rendering them a bit hazy. The nightly encounters with men on the street were captured using GoPro-style cameras, and they look about as reasonable as can be expected – grainy, not very detailed, and like a home video. Although much of what we see is bleak, the Scottish vistas look simply gorgeous and haunting. This might be far from what Blu-ray aficionados consider “reference quality”, but it is no doubt presented just as accurately as Glazer and his collaborators intended.

A great deal of the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track rests on the compositions of Levi because there isn’t a lot of dialogue to be heard. When characters are speaking, it is presented cleanly and balanced, though good luck making out what half the Scots here are saying. Those brogues are thick as a brick. The most boisterous moments come when Johansson enters a nightclub, with bass thumping and the sound of patrons echoing all around. Otherwise, the track comes to life only when Levi’s score is slowly working its magic to immerse listeners. Rears come to life for added ambiance, but this is a very minimal sound design that keeps viewers focused more on the images on screen and less on what they’re hearing. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.

The back cover sells the supplements a bit short, claiming to hold only one featurette. That one featurette is actually several shorter pieces that together form a nice making-of that runs over 40 minutes, focusing on camera, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound, and VFX. An insert containing a code for digital Ultraviolet HD download is included in the package.

Special Features:

  • The Making of Under the Skin featurette

    Film:

    4 out of 5

    Special Features:

    3 1/2 out of 5

    Discuss Under the Skin in the comments section below!

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    Victor Crowley Blu-ray Review – Killer Special Features Make This a Must-Own

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    Starring Parry Shen, Kane Hodder, Laura Ortiz, Dave Sheridan, Felissa Rose, and Tiffany Shepis

    Directed by Adam Green

    Distributed by Dark Sky Films


    Like many of you horror fans out there, I was surprised as hell when Adam Green announced that there was not only going to be the fourth entry in his famed Hatchet series but that the movie had already been filmed and was going to be screening across the country.

    Of course, I wanted to get to one of those screenings as soon as possible, but unfortunately, there were no events in my neck of the woods here in Gainesville, Fl., and so I had to bide my time and await the Blu-ray.

    Then a few days ago, the Blu-ray for Victor Crowley landed on my doorstep and I jumped right into watching the film. Short story, I loved it. But we’ll get into all of that more in-depth below. For now, let’s do a quick rundown on the film for those two or three horror fans out there who aren’t familiar with the film and its premise.

    Victor Crowley is the fourth entry in the Hatchet series, a franchise that follows the tale of a deformed man that accidentally met the wrong end of his father’s hatchet long ago and now roams the Louisiana swamp each night as a “Repeater”, aka a ghost that doesn’t know it is dead and thus cannot be killed. Ever. Well, maybe not ever. After all, Victor was supposedly killed at the end of Hatchet III by a combination of Danielle Harris, his father’s ashes, and a grenade launcher. Dead to rights, right? Not so much.

    In this fourth entry/reboot, a group of indie horror filmmakers, lead by the adorable Katie Booth, accidentally resurrect Crowley just as the original trilogy’s lone survivor (Parry Shen) is visiting the swamp one final time in the name of cold hard cash. Long story short, Shen’s plane crashes with his agent (Felissa Rose), his ex-wife (Krystal Joy Brown), and her film crew in tow. Some survive the initial crash, some don’t. As you can imagine, the lucky ones died first.

    Victor Crowley is a true return to form for Adam Green, who sat out of the director’s chair on the third film. As always, Green doesn’t shy away from the over-the-top comedy and gore the franchise is well known for. The blood rages and the sight-gags hit fast and unexpectedly. And, speaking of the sight-gags, there’s evidently a shot in this Blu-ray version of the film that was cut from the “Unrated” version released on VOD. The shot is one I won’t spoil here, but for the sake of viewing Green’s initial vision alone, the Blu-ray for Victor Crowley is really the only way to own this film. Don’t get me wrong, there are (many) more reasons to shell out the cash for this Blu-ray, but I’ll get into those soon.

    Back to the film itself, what makes this fourth entry in the series one of the very best Hatchet films (if not THE best) is Adam Green’s honesty. Not only does he conquer a few demons with the ex-wife subplot, but he gives us a truly tragic moment via Tiffany Shepis’ character that had me in stunned silence. Her death is not an easy kill to pull off in a notoriously over-the-top slasher series, but it earned mucho respect from this guy.

    Basically, if you loved the original trilogy, you will love this one as well. If you mildly enjoyed the other films, this one will surely make you a fan. Slow clap, Adam Green.

    Special Features:

    Let it be known that I’m a massive fan of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking documentaries. Like many of you out there, I find film production to be utterly fascinating and thus have grown a little tired of the typical making-of featurettes we get on Blu-rays. You know the ones. The director talks about his vision for the film, the cast say how much fun they had on-set with the other actors and crew, and we get cutaways to people dancing and trying to kiss the behind-the-scenes camera – all usually set to upbeat music.

    While I’ll take what I can get, these kinds of behind-the-scenes features have grown to be little more than tiresome and superficial. But no worries here my friends as Adam Green has pulled out all the BS and given us a full-length, 90-minute behind-the-scenes feature called “Fly on the Wall” that shows it how it really is on the set.

    Highlights include new Hatchet D.P. Jan-Michael Losada, who took over for Will Barratt this time around, who is little less than a f*cking hilarious rockstar, a front row seat to the making of Felissa Rose’s death scene, a creepy-cool train ghost story prank by Green, a clever impromptu song via Krystal Joy Brown (Sabrina), and a fun bit towards the end where Green and the SFX crew create the “gore inserts” in (basically) the backyard after filming. Good times all around.

    The documentary then ends with the Facebook Live video of Adam Green announcing Victor Crowley‘s surprise premiere at that Hatchet 10th Anniversary screening. A great way to end a killer making-of documentary making his disc a must-own for this special feature alone.

    But wait, it gets better. On top of the film itself and the above-mentioned “Fly on the Wall” documentary, the disc features an extensive interview with Adam Green called “Raising the Dead… Again.” This interview is basically Green going over the same speech he gave to the crowd at the surprise unveiling shown at the end of the “Fly on the Wall” doc, but that said, it’s great to hear Green tells his inspiring story to us directly.

    So while this feature treads water all of us have been through below (especially fans of Green’s podcast The Movie Crypt), Green is always so charming and brutally honest that we never get tired of him telling us the truth about the ins-and-outs of crafting horror films in this day and age. Again, good stuff.

    Additionally, the disc also boasts two audio commentaries, one with Adam Green and actors Parry Shen, Laura Ortiz, and Dave Sheridan, and another “technical” commentary with Adam Green, cinematographer Jan-Michael Losada, editor Matt Latham, and make-up effects artist Robert Pendergraft.

    Add in the film’s teaser and trailer, and Victor Crowley is a must-own on Blu-ray.

    BUY IT HERE!

    Special features:

    • Audio commentary with writer/director Adam Green and actors Parry Shen, Laura Ortiz, and Dave Sheridan
    • Audio commentary with writer/director Adam Green, cinematographer Jan-Michael Losada, editor Matt Latham, and make-up effects artist Robert Pendergraft
    • Raising the Dead… Again – Extensive interview with writer/director Adam Green
    • Behind the Scenes – Hour-long making-of featurette
    • Trailer
    • Victor Crowley
    • Special Features
    3.5

    Summary

    One of the best, if not THE best, entries in the Hatchet series, with special features that are in-depth and a blast (and considering all other versions of the film have been castrated for content), this Blu-ray is really the only way to own Adam Green’s Victor Crowley.

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    Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 152 – Cloverfield Paradox & The Ritual

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    Last week Netflix shocked the world by not only releasing a new trailer for Cloverfield Paradox during the Superbowl, but announcing the film would be available to stream right after the game. In a move no one saw coming, Netflix shook the film industry to it’s very core. A few days later, Netflix quietly released horror festival darling: The Ritual.

    Hold on to your Higgs Boson, because this week we’ve got a double header for ya, and we’re not talking about that “world’s largest gummy worm” in your mom’s nightstand. Why was one film marketed during the biggest sporting event of the year, and why was one quietly snuck in like a pinky in your pooper? Tune in a find out!

    Meet me at the waterfront after the social for the Who Goes There Podcast episode 152!

    If you like what you hear, please consider joining our Patreon subscribers. For less than the cost of a beer, you get bonus content, exclusive merchandise, special giveaways, and you get to help us continue doing what we love.

    The Who Goes There Podcast is available to subscribe to on iTunes right here. Not an iTunes user? You can listen on our Dread Central page. Can’t get enough? We also do that social media shit. You’ll find us on FacebookTwitterInstagramTwitch, and YouTube.

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    The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger

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    Starring Nhung Kate, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan

    Written and directed by Derek Nguyen


    Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.

    Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.

    Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.

    Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.

    Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.

    The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.

    Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.

    The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.

    • Film
    3.0

    Summary

    Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.

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