Director: Luuk Audenaerde
Writer: Luuk Audenaerde
Cast: Ian Lu
Running time: 5mins
It might seem odd to begin a review of a gory body horror by paraphrasing Sir Thomas Overbury’s famous line, but beauty is ‘but skin deep’ in all its forms, and if you are going to set about a film focusing on the ravages of a shocking transformation then you will need to remember that. While all of cinema’s classic moments of bone-crunching body horror inevitably centre on a few moments of gloriously agonising practical effects, they wouldn’t have a fraction of the impact they do without the characterisation we have been subjected to earlier in the story.
Directors at the top of this field take care not to become distracted by storytelling just because they have nifty effects at their disposal. For example, Jeff Goldblum’s disgusting transition in David Cronenberg’s The Fly would probably have moved us significantly less if we hadn’t gotten to know his naïve, neurotic yet ineffably charming self before-hand.At the same time, David Naughton’s agonised howls in John Landis’ American Werewolf in London might not have troubled us emotionally if they hadn’t been coming from a funny, quirky young man who we had come to know at what should have been a pivotal moment in his life.
Unfortunately, Luuk Audenaerde’s venture into the body horror genre is a little surface level by comparison. While Ian Lu’s practical effects are sufficiently realistic enough to elicit repulsion from viewers, their engagement with Out of My Skin is unlikely to go beyond extended cries of “ewww.” Much of what so softens this film’s potential impact is how little chance we get to learn about our main character, to see what pressures he is under, or to relate to his hopes and fears before the action occurs.
Our sole character, Jongeman (literally Young Man in English) is played by Lu, and spends the duration of the film staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, obsessively trying to conceal an outbreak of acne. The film occurs entirely within this silent, sparse tomb of a room, with no visual cues to help us learn anything about the empty vessel of a character before us – leaving his drive for pristine skin a mystery. There are no hints at a desired career, a potential lover, the desire to escape a lonely life, or even to just be perceived as beautiful. He doesn’t even really have a name.
While Lu does get the opportunity to speak through his makeup skills, very little is asked of him in terms of his performance. While it might arguably have occurred to him to try and convey a little more frustration as his attempts to clear his face of spots amps up, responsibility for his perceived flatlining here ultimately lies with the director, who might have coached a slightly more animated performance from his star. Instead, we are left with a clumsily added heart-beat sound effect to tell us about Jongeman’s escalating frustration.
Admittedly, when Lu’s special effects are finally given their moment to shine, they deliver in a big way – giving us some suitably grotesque moments which will no doubt linger much too close to our next mealtime for comfort. At the same time, Director of Photography Nino Stafleu excels in the subtle build up to the climactic carnage. Echoing one famously disturbing scenes of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, sudden drips of scarlet on the floor and in the sink neatly foregrounds an approaching nightmare of facial destruction.
Once again though, in Poltergeist we knew what the stakes were. While the paranormal investigator who peels his face away might not have been formally introduced to us, we glimpse his bantering relationship with the others, and we also know what his possible defeat may mean for the loving family his is hoping to help. Here, we only have a rather timid post-script, where Jongeman returns to preening in the mirror – this time in a suit.
Perhaps this final detail might hint at the pressures our protagonist is facing. There may be pressures at work relating to his appearance. Maybe he is vying for a promotion, and he has become obsessed with his external visage as a means to getting noticed, rather than focusing on his inner qualities, leading to this self-destructive behaviour which will ironically put him out of the running for any such advancement. All of those things would be valid ways of emphasising the message about self-destructive beauty standards Audenaerde seems to have been trying to make.
Sadly, however, what he has given us by way of some quite lacklustre mise-en-scène and characterisation means that this is all a little too vague to leave us with anything more definite than the momentary shock we feel during the film’s more striking moments of self-mutilation. Audenaerde seems to have become too enamoured with the ‘beauty’ of the special effects provided by Lu, and as a result has not imbued the story with enough emotional meat to really make the most of them.
There are plenty of individual details on display here to suggest that the members of this production have bright futures in front of them – not least effects artist Ian Lu. The problem is that there is not enough of an attempt to elaborate on the immediate world the film provides us with – in terms of visual or audible storytelling – and while often in terms of short filmmaking, less is more, here at least Luuk Audenaerde needed to offer up something to take the end-product to another level.