Directed and produced by husband and wife duo, Howard and Mitzi Allen respectively (who together formed the production company HAMAFilms), The Skin brings a welcome touch of Caribbean folklore to the film industry. This is a film that has Antigua and Barbuda running thickly through its veins, having been made exclusively in the country with its main characters portrayed by Antiguan actors. Being a former Film Studies student, I couldn’t let it escape my grasp during my recent trip there.
The two mains are characters who are about to have their house taken off them for unpaid debts when – rather conveniently, as usually seems the case in stories such as this one – Michael (Brent Simon) stumbles upon a half buried urn while out taking photographs. No, he isn’t just aiming a shot and then sees the urn out of the corner of his eye, as you’d expect. In fact, on his way home, he realises he needs to pee, and as men do, decides to find the nearest bush. The patch of ground he chooses happens to have said urn just underneath; thus it is Michael’s urine that we must thank for setting up the premise of the film (a sign of the films tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, that becomes even less subtle later on).
Little cultural intricacies add to the movie’s charm. Soon after finding the urn, Michael is stopped by a police officer who informs him that one of the lights on his car isn’t working, before being kindly urged to get it fixed – while in Britain or America, he’d likely be asked for his licence and registration and be considered a threat to everyone else on the road. But this is Antigua, where the pot-holed roads are more dangerous than most of the people on them. Therefore such concerns about a broken tail-light would be kind of missing the point.
Taking the vase home to his wife Lisa (Aisha Ralph), the couple soon realise it may be an antique. As it happens, Michael previously did some photography work for a British ex-pat antiques dealer, Felix, who lives on a sail-boat down in English Harbour (referencing locations like this feels good when you’ve actually been there yourself). Michael wastes no time in taking the vase to him, in order to find out if it could be worth any money.
Felix is played by veteran British actor Jeff Stewart, who is best known for his long-running role as PC Reg Hollis on UK drama The Bill. Stewart’s experience brings an undeniable presence to his character, and the film, in what is one of its most memorable performances. His character Felix does take the vase from Michael and Lisa, paying them $60,000 for it, but fortunately for us that is not the end of the film.
Lisa, upon cleaning out the vase, had found remains inside of it and promptly placed them in the kitchen bin. That night, crawling fresh out of the bin, comes a physical spirit with a vengeful attitude towards babies and compulsion to find her stolen ‘vessel’ again. Leading her on a warpath that begins affecting the lives of Michael and Lisa, they eventually go to a witch doctor who calls himself ‘Vision’, played by Jamaican actor Carl Bradshaw.
It is here where the films subtle sense of humour starts to become more prominent, threatening to turn the production into a farcical parody. The seriousness played out through the rest of the movie is thrown off as if it was a shackle for the filmmakers’ true intentions. Vision, for example, carries a pregnancy test in his bag – something that I didn’t think was common practice for Jamaican witch doctors, even if it does end up proving useful.
At other times, the few attempts at CGI produce awkward results. This is understandable in a film that doesn’t have the budget or technology to compete with Hollywood, but one then has to question why it was necessary to include such effects in the film, considering the already small part they play.
The soundtrack, featuring original music and songs by Antiguan artists, is memorable and adds greatly to the films atmosphere. This atmosphere manages a fine balance between chilling, when dealing with spiritual matters, and the unique coolness that one associates with the Caribbean.
Performances from Veron Stoute as the spirit and Peter Williams as the sleazy police detective investigating the case deserve special mention as well. Stoute’s roots as a professional dancer and choreographer lend perfectly to the role she plays here, which involves some unnatural movement and a presence to stand out from the others in the film. Williams’ character, meanwhile, has been written into the story for one reason only, and you soon work out what it is. He is seen to be eyeing up any woman he comes across – and thanks mainly to the performance of Williams, the audience eagerly awaits his comeuppance.
The Skin also has some of the most obvious product placement you will ever see; on more than one occasion ‘Subway’ takes centre screen. First seen when Lisa holds up a Subway cup at dinner, a Subway van then crashes into Michael’s vehicle later in the film. It feels almost as if Subway wants to be a character itself, and if they could have found a way to write it more into the story, no doubt it would have been.
For those who get pernickety over the little details, there are some mild annoyances present. At one point, the spirit of the film communicates with the characters through a dream, asking where the vase is only to be told it is ‘on the boat’ by Lisa in a deep voice. No mention of which boat, no indication of why a dream sequence was necessary to uncover such basic information in the first place, but it seems enough for our witch to stop the dreamy interrogation and go about her business. It soon turns out that this spirit apparently has viable finger-prints that the police are able to pick up from the places it has been.
Regardless of these and a few other niggling problems, there are many pleasant surprises to be found in The Skin, even after you think it’s over. Don’t come to it expecting a serious affair. Come instead expecting to be entertained by a thriller that almost manages to make you scared and laugh in equal measure. As with many films that ask this of their audience, it also requires a suspension of disbelief. The Skin doesn’t make sense, that’s right, but the only reason we don’t think that about every single Hollywood movie ever made is because they have more experience in manipulating us through smoke and mirrors.
I would wholly recommend you watch The Skin for yourself. If you are interested in finding out more, check out the HAMAFilms website here.
7 / 10.