Reviews Short Narrative

Under My Skin (2022) – 3 stars

Director: Liam Azogui

Writer: Liam Azogui

Cast: Nancy Rose, Joy Smith, Julia Heller

Running time: 16mins

We have featured self-mutilation horror before on Indy Film Library, in the very similarly titled Out of My Skin. On that occasion, the film fell a little flat, as despite having some shockingly gory visuals on display, there was no characterisation to help us engage with the film beyond simply being grossed out.

Horror works best when we are invited to care about its protagonists. When we can invest in the wellbeing and survival of lead characters, we experience the threats they face vicariously, and the force that is tormenting them subsequently feels a lot more real. It’s what keeps us checking over our shoulders during a late-night trip to the bathroom after a particularly effective movie – we have believed we can take the horror home with us.

The uncomfortable itching that manifested itself after I sat through Under My Skin suggests that, on balance, Liam Azogui managed such a feat with his debut short film. Its characters feel organic, relatable, shaped and driven by anxieties that we have all experienced at one time or another – and as a result, the body horror that inevitably serves as the film’s climax begins to feel a little too close for comfort.

Caroline (Nancy Rose) is in an uncertain relationship with Henriette (Joy Smith). The pair seem unsure of what exactly they want from each other: due to former, unexplored traumas, Caroline wants commitment, but also feels repulsed by getting close to anyone; while Henriette is “crazy” about her other half, but struggles to connect in ways that don’t involve small-talk about kids’ movies. And at the same time, Henriette’s ex-partner Elle (Julia Heller) remains part of her life, causing her current significant-other to start asking questions.

Interactions between Caroline and Henriette seem to be a mix of written and improvised dialogue – some moments of which work better than others – but what remains consistent throughout is a believable chemistry between the two actors. Whether they are happily theorising about the expanded lore of Stuart Little, bickering over Instagram posts, or trying to unpack their emotional baggage, there is an authentic energy between the pair that will carry the audience along, however clunky the ‘I respect your feelings’ type conversations become.

All this means that when we reach the grizzly conclusion, we feel like we have skin in the game – and it hurts to see someone we care about (or even see as an avatar of our own insecurities) go through such pain. Before I go any further, if you are not a fan of gore, this film is to be avoided. If you are lucky enough to have a strong stomach, read on.

As the relationship goes through its peaks and troughs, Caroline has suffered from some increasingly severe bouts of eczema. She has been fighting the urge to scratch every itch, before a reconciliation with Henriette seems to briefly calm the flare-ups. With the final scene possibly taking place after a final severance from her partner, however, she finally succumbs to her impulses in a final flurry of scraping, gouging and tearing that is probably best viewed on an empty stomach.

Special Effects Department Head Evilise Quijano and Special Effects Co-ordinator Ian Mills Miller clearly deserve a lot of credit here. The layers of bloody-skin which peel away throughout the sequence are particularly revolting, and will have even the most well-heeled horror fan wincing as they watch through their fingers. At the same time, the cinematography of Joseph Hughes, Gavi Loewenstein and Cortland Tate does well to disguise more DIY aspects of the moment – for example showing a soft-filter close-up of blood running down an arm in the foreground, to give a little necessary distance from Charlotte’s t-shirt, which looks more like she had been careless with the tomato ketchup than bathing in her own blood.

Unfortunately, this attitude is also applied to the dance sequences that intersperse the dramatic events of real life. During moments of stress, Charlotte has visions of a lone performer, twisting and writhing on a stage in a deserted auditorium. The identity of the dancer is difficult to work out though, as little is done to properly foreground her face.

Initially, I suspected it might have been Charlotte, imagining herself as a tortured dancer squirming in pain during her bouts of eczema. But the credits suggest Julia Heller (Elle) choreographed these scenes – and the dancer seems to have slightly lighter hair than Charlotte, suggesting she performed them to. So, Charlotte is watching Elle – a romantic rival – put on a show? To what end is left to us to decipher.

So too are the conclusions around Charlotte and Henriette’s relationship. They seem to have reached a common ground before Charlotte views one final dance of Elle. Soon after, a flash of an empty bed – where the couple were cuddling happily moments before – is shown. Perhaps this suggests that Charlotte let her nagging doubts get the best of her, and definitively pushed Henriette away. Perhaps this suggests a wordless confirmation her doubts were correct and it ended the relationship.

Either way, I personally would have liked to have seen something a little more committal, when it comes to helping us draw any conclusions. A final confrontation between two actors who have bounced off each other so well could only have been a bonus, surely. As it is, we are left to our own devices, meaning that as grim as the ending is, it is slightly more underwhelming than it ought to have been.

That does not mean that Under My Skin is ineffective, though. It still manages to be a solid character piece, culminating in a horrific sequence of gut-wrenching gore that packs a raw emotional punch. But with a few minor tweaks for added emphasis, it might have been truly outstanding.

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