Sunday, July 20, 2014

Vamp or Not? Under the Skin

A 2013 film by Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin tweaked my “Vamp of Not?” senses from the moment I heard about it. This was primarily because I read that it was about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) that sucked the flesh from young men she picked up. It rang an internal bell and so I watched a film that is very much a science fiction art film.

I have seen positive and negative comments about the film – indeed it seems to polarise viewers. I have also heard various directors’ work it is compared to. What I haven’t particularly seen is a likening to The Man Who Fell to Earth but it is very much in the same ball park as an alien is used to explore someone who seems outside society and through that character we start to question the essence of what is humanity. However the question we need to ask is, “Is it vamp?”

Scarlett Johansson is the girl
It starts with lights and, eventually, an eye. We can hear a voice, at first only making repetitive sounds, which is clearly the learning of language. A motorbike rides through the Scottish countryside. Eventually the rider (Jeremy McWilliams) stops and walks down an embankment, when he returns he is carrying a girl’s body. He puts it in the back of a white van. In a white room a naked girl (Johansson) walks to the body and strips it – putting on her clothes. A tear leaks from the girl being stripped – so she isn’t quiet dead. The implication is that the girl has been irreparably damaged somehow and Johansson’s character is replacing her.

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The majority of the film has her driving around Scotland trying to pick up men in her van. She is careful to question them as she wants to ascertain that they won’t be missed. Some of the dialogue can seem a little stilted but these are not actors – Glazer had a hidden camera running and explained to these men afterwards that it was for a movie. As such a couple of these guys ended up being rather brave as their characters are brought back to her’s. The room they enter is a formless black and they follow her as she strips and they strip too. Notably the main couple of guys we see have erections. As she walks the floor becomes liquid below them and they walk on, submerging themselves. At this point they seem mesmerised, unable to help themselves, unable to turn away.

only skin remains
Over the submerging of a couple of men we see what happens to them. One man ends up submerged, he can make nor hear any sound. He sees another victim and they manage to touch fingers. The man who was already there looks odd, as though the liquid is slowly digesting him, then – suddenly – his innards are evacuated leaving just his skin floating. We see a conveyor of viscera going somewhere. The film is purposefully ambiguous as to what is going on but, in the novel it is based on, human is a delicacy on the alien’s home planet.

on the beach
She is divorced from emotion, watching with a distant air as a man tries to rescue another man in the sea who has tried to rescue his wife, who in turn has tried to rescue her dog. On the beach the couple’s baby cries. I have seen complaints about this, that no one would leave their baby to try and rescue a dog but, living at the shore as I do I am aware of several death when people have tried to rescue a dog in the sea and been swept out themselves. She bashes the exhausted would-be rescuer with a rock and drags him to the van. Both she – and the biker who comes later to remove the tent and gear belonging to the man they have taken – ignore the crying baby leaving it to the elements. It is a rather harrowing scene. Talking of harrowing, some of the chosen ambient music is disturbing, almost a communication of anxiety.

what is under the skin?
The film follows her as she starts to develop humanity and it is through another outsider, a facial neurofibromatosis sufferer (Adam Pearson), that she consciously starts to recognise something within herself. Incidentally Adam Pearson genuinely has neurofibromatosis. So we have a few tropes familiar in the vampire genre. We have the theme of the outsider (though from the outsider’s point of view), we have sexuality used as a predatory lure. It does seem that the victims are literally sucked out of themselves, leaving only the skin, whilst their innards are presumably used for consumption. When we see an alien – in its true form – burning it seems a very quick incineration, which felt familiar. Whilst the room in which the men are submerged appear to be formless black, the house that serves as base of operations has a decayed, derelict look.

However, despite some familiar tropes I don’t think that this is Vamp. If anything the aliens are predators but that doesn’t make them vampires per se. Indeed I was kind of reminded of the film Prey, at least with regard the alien predatory aspect. Not Vamp.


Alex. G said...

Maybe should do this sort of review of Hellraiser to. As the character Frank was a creature who consumed blood to rebuild his body.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I normally do these if something in the descriptor has tweeked my interest (and even then not always) or if I have read someone claiming it as being vampire.

That isn't a constant - Pirie, in the Vampire Cinema, claims Living Dead at the manchester Morgue and Night of the Living Dead as vampire films - I investigated the former but not the latter.

However it is an interesting point you make, Frank does use blood to reconstitute his body. Whether I would go down the line of a "Vamp or Not?" article I don't know but it is almost an excuse to rewatch the films as I haven't seen them in years ;)

Alex. G said...

Night of the living dead? A vampire film? Well, vampires and zombies are both undead who feed on humans, I'll give this Pirie fella that. But if he's gonna include that in his book, then he also have to add all of the other hundreds of zombie films out there.

Hellraiser is worthy of a Honorable Mention at least. Especially if films like Dead Snow or Children of the living dead can get a mention.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

To be fair, Pirie's book was back in 1977 - so there were not as many zombie films as now and I guess part of the logic might be that it was influenced by I am Legend (plus, as you say, they are undead, feeding on humans)

Zombies became, of course, their own genre in their own right but we do get the lines blurred in some films, zompire wise.

Dead Snow is an odd one as draugr aren't vampires (per se) but they aren't really zombies as Romero envisioned them either. But (in their original folklore) they do fit into the folklore that gets swept into the general vampire pot (as you know, we conversed about that on the Dead Snow Honourable Mention :) )

LD@tMM I did do a Vamp or Not on - and mentioned the Pirie book - I went Not Vamp but it had been suggested by someone as one to look at.

Alex. G said...

Whoops, look like I made a mistake there. That's Children shouldn't play with dead things, not Children of the living dead.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Ah, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things got a mention because of someone deliberately acting as a vampire at the head of the film - not for the zombies later :)