New takes on horror

Under the Skin’ and Only Lovers Left Alive’

5 minute read
Trying to pass: Scarlett Johansson in "Under the Skin." (© 2014 – StudioCanal)
Trying to pass: Scarlett Johansson in "Under the Skin." (© 2014 – StudioCanal)

One of the delights of established film genres is that every so often an imaginative director or writer will come along to shake things up. Currently two such entries in the horror genre are playing on Philadelphia screens.

Under the Skin is a new film by Jonathan Glazer, who has already brought us Sexy Beast and Birth. In some ways this slow-moving, visually hypnotic film reminded me of an earlier French film, Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (recently released on DVD) — right down to the fact that both films feature an enigmatic motorcyclist. Like the earlier film, it’s not terribly concerned with dotting the narrative i's and crossing the t's. It’s a visually beautiful film that saves its big special effects payoff until the final scene.

What you get is Scarlett Johansson traveling around in a van picking up horny earthmen. They go with her expecting a good time, but they are instead transported to her home planet for undisclosed reasons that can’t be good for the earthmen. In one disturbing sequence, Johansson picks up a facially deformed fellow on his way to the local mini-mart. It looks as though there may be a bit of bonding about to occur — it feels like the scene began life as an experimental one-act play — but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

The saving grace of Under the Skin, other than its overall look, is Johansson, a study in bewilderment. She's trying really hard to pass as a human without quite understanding what it’s all about. When she finally does begin to catch on, it proves to be her undoing, suggesting perhaps that aliens have as much to fear from humans as we have to fear from them.

Of course, the basic plot of Under the Skin isn’t terribly original: in 1957 Roger Corman gave us a human-seeming Mr. Johnson transporting the unwary back to the planet Davana in Not of This Earth, and in 1965 there was a nifty little British thriller, Night Caller, a.k.a. Blood Beast from Outer Space, which simply reversed polarities and had a male alien transporting female subjects to his planet.

Again, though, the originality — or lack thereof — of the story isn't really the point: Director Jonathan Glazer seems to want to riff on the conventions of the genre. Here we have a science-fiction opus crossed with a story about alienation and the failure to connect on many levels. In his earlier Sexy Beast, we had a crime film about a diamond heist masterminded by Satan himself. (For those who weren’t playing attention, the “sexy beast” was neither overweight Ray Winstone nor bullet-pated Ben Kingsley, it was Ian McShane’s sleek Teddy Bass, Mr. Black Magic himself.)

In the end, Under the Skin, like Trouble Every Day, is a beautiful, disturbing film that is impossible to ignore, but hard to really cuddle up to.

Blood-sippers and bloodsuckers

Jim Jarmusch always respects the genre he happens to be using as his jumping-off point. His Ghost Dog worked as a gangster/revenge film and Dead Man worked as a revisionist Western. Now, with his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, he’s trying his hand at a vampire movie — and he’s made the best one since 2010's Let Me In. It’s got a well thought-out plot, it’s well photographed and edited, and it's beautifully acted. In addition, although it purports to be about vampires, it tells us quite a bit about humans.

Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, are a perversely glamorous vampire couple. Far from oozing style (as, for instance, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger), they are relatively anonymous. Adam holes up in a decaying Detroit mansion and plays about with avant-garde music while he toys with notions of suicide. (Vampires do this by using a wooden bullet to the heart.) Eve's home base is in Tangiers, where she immerses herself in music, dance, and the arts. She also pals around with undead Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who, in the best Marlovian tradition, also deals in fresh bottled blood to go.

Although Eve is centuries old and her mate Adam dates from the Romantic period (he knew Lord Byron and found him to be a pompous bore), neither is an active hunter. They prefer to buy their blood like a fine wine and sip it from crystal goblets or silver flasks. Just as Marlowe supplies Eve in Tangier, Adam, living in downscale Detroit, gets his supply from a dodgy doctor (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital.

Their essential passivity is made even clearer by the unexpected arrival in town of Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She is pure predator, effortlessly adept at picking up a bozo at the local underground bar, taking him back to Adam’s place and, to use Adam’s own term, “drinking” him. Some have characterized Wasikowska’s Ava as “evil," but she's not — she doesn’t put enough thought into her actions to really be evil. She’s more of a reckless, thoughtless child given to instant gratification. While Adam and Eve delicately sip at their goblets of O-negative, Ava chugs hers down like a cheap beer, then wants more.

Although Adam and Eve are reasonably likeable vampires, and in a perfect world would probably do no harm to the humans they disdainfully regard as “zombies,” when both lose their suppliers, they revert to being every bit as predatory as Ava, who perhaps wasn’t completely out of line in characterizing them as hypocrites. The takeaway seems to be that neither humans nor vampires want to starve, and though it’s nice to admire the hypnotic rhythms of Moroccan popular music and to be able to read unpublished poems by Marlowe, when the blood-flask runs dry, the eyes glow and the fangs lengthen.

For another take on current horror — Paula Berman's analysis of TV's Hannibal — click here.

(Above right: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive. Photo by Sandro Kopp - © 2013 - Sony Pictures Classics)

What, When, Where

Under the Skin. Directed by Jonathan Glazer; screenplay by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell based on a novel by Michel Faber. Currently at the Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead Street, Philadelphia.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch. Currently at the Ritz 5, 220 Walnut Street, Philadelphia.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation