Under the Skin
Author: Alexander Stuart
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:Disguised as a human, an alien female drives around Scotland, picking up hitchhikers and kidnapping them for mysterious purposes.
Synopsis:Over a montage of maps of Scotland, a narrator describes the setting’s history and culture. A rusty Toyota rumbles along a highway through the Highlands. In it is ISSERLEY, a young woman with thick glasses, dark hair, and a distractingly large chest. Isserley spots a backpack-toting hitchhiker along the side of the road. She slows, eyeing him carefully, before speeding up and moving past him. She stops at an isolated service station, Arabella. The 15-year-old attendant, DORA, watches Isserley. Isserley continues down the highway. She spots another hitchhiker, well-muscled and looking like he just got out of prison. She picks him up. After asking questions about where he’s going and who might miss him, Isserley pushes a button on a dashboard that causes a hypodermic needle to jab the hitchhiker in the leg, knocking him out.
Meanwhile, ESSWIS goes shopping at a grocery store in a small farming village. He returns to Ablach farm, drives past the cottages and barn, and stops at the incinerator. He burns every grocery. Isserley lives on the same farm. She goes to her cottage, pulls off leg braces, and lies down. The next morning, she struggles out of bed. Her legs seem to have atrophied. Isserley drives, passing another unsuitable hitchhiker as she moves through the Highlands. She stops at Arabella again, and this time Dora makes conversation. She’s friendly, but Isserley isn’t. She goes back on the road and picks up a Celtic hitchhiker. The Celtic says some inflammatory things about the female gender. Rather than drugging him, she forces the Celtic out of the car, then continues driving. Esswis practices bagpipes. He’s stopped by McALLEN, a neighboring farmer, drops by to tell Esswis of a local meeting. Esswis has no interest in it. Isserley picks up a new hitchhiker, this one unattractive. She drugs him. She drives the Toyota to the barn, drags the hitchhiker to the door, and leaves him there. Dark shapes emerge from the shadows, pulling him inside.
Isserley visits Esswis’s cottage. He asks about her day. Isserley is disappointed in the ugliness of today’s hitchhiker. She feels there’s always someone better out there, if she could only work longer and harder. Esswis prepares some unrecognizable food to her and mentions that “Vess” is coming with “the next ship.” Isserley’s surprised. She asks if they should be proud. Esswis thinks they should be worried. That night, Isserley lies in bed, unable to sleep. The narrator explains that Isserley often found it difficult and confusing when her thoughts turned to subjects other than work, as they did now. Vess coming concerned her, because it suggests she is not the best at her job. In an attempt to prove otherwise, the next day, Isserley drugs a German hitchhiker. On Sunday, Esswis takes Isserley to church. The entire town eyes them strangely. On Thursday, McAllen brings a crew of laborers to harvest Esswis’s potato fields and work on clearing his septic tank. Esswis yells at the septic tank workers for starting too early. McAllen says there is a lot of work to be done; one would think it was accommodating a full army. Esswis reaffirms the importance of their scheduled hours and forbids anyone from coming to the farm early or leaving late.
Esswis gripes to Isserley about McAllen. Isserley doesn’t care much, except that McAllen’s weekly presence prevents her from working on Thursdays. Isserley stops at Arabella again, and Dora strikes up another conversation. Isserley tries to excuse herself politely. Dora apologizes for talking too much. Isserley fails to find a hitchhiker for the day. That night, she discusses with Esswis plans to drive farther in a given day. The narrator explains that Vess runs some sort of empire. He arrives the following morning. Esswis gets Isserley. They go to Vess’s college. VESS is some sort of alien creature, half-man, half-jungle-cat, jet-black, six-toed, creepy. He sits on his haunches, like a cat. He complains about the weather, then demands to hear of their accomplishments. Thinking Isserley is inefficient, Vess tells her she should be bringing in three or four hitchhikers a day, instead of just one. Esswis is irritated by his meddling and tells Isserley to continue going one by one.
Isserley picks up a mustached hitchhiker and is surprised when he tells her he’d rather spend time with his dogs than with people. She leaves him at the barn, but this revelation about human behavior haunts her. Isserley undresses, showers, and attempts to bend her human-esque legs at impossible angles to sit on haunches. The narrator observes that this experience is the dawning of Isserley’s awareness. Isserley goes to Arabella but collapses. Concerned, Dora gently helps Isserley to her feet and offers to call an ambulance. Isserley refuses it and forces herself to carry on. Isserley picks up another hitchhiker. That night, at dinner, she surprises Esswis by sitting on her haunches. Esswis ridicules her for trying so hard to impress Vess. Isserley doesn’t want to deny who they are. Esswis tells her Vess will leave, but they must stay. They must blend in. Isserley seeks out a hitchhiker. She thinks she has found one, but a woman is with him. She carries on. She finds a creepy, tattooed hitchhiker to knock out and return to the farm. This time, she goes inside the barn. Inside are creatures that are like miniature versions of Vess. Isserley tells them she wants to watch, this time.
That night, it rains. Isserley is awakened in the middle of the night by Esswis. Four of the “vodsels” (their word for the humans they’ve kidnapped) have escape. They run through the fields, naked and confused. Esswis dresses in hunting clothes, and he and Isserley drive together in search of the men. The creatures from the barn also pursue them. Esswis and Isserley find two of them. One escapes, but the other is hit by a truck. Isserley and Esswis quickly pack them into their truck. Meanwhile, the creatures catch up with the other two. The third remains MIA. When they get back to the farm, Esswis is disappointed, fearing this makes them look incompetent. They have no choice but to wake Vess and explain what happened. Meanwhile, two hunters stumble on the body of the missing vodsel. Unlike the muscular hitchhikers Isserley picks up, this man is fat and has been castrated. Vess pretends to take the blame, but subtly he blames everything on Esswis. Vess comes up with a new plan: if Isserley finds a woman, she can breed with the males, and they can leave this planet. Isserley is uncertain.
Later, Esswis comes to Isserley privately. He points out the freedom they have on Earth. They might have a little physical suffering, but they’re better off. He tells Isserley to fail and ruin Vess’s plans. Isserley contemplates this. The next day, she tries to pick up a woman but fails — few women hitch, and the ones who do refuse to go with Isserley. She stops at Arabella. Dora politely invites Isserley to go ice-skating with her. Isserley says she’s too busy with work. Dora tells her to think about it. Esswis is pleased at what he assumes is Isserley’s intentional failure. The next day, Isserley continues to try and pick up women, to no avail. Eventually, she finds one — but it turns out to be an extremely effeminate man in a LEATHER COAT. She tries to inject him, but the hypodermic can’t pierce the leather. Surprisingly, he doesn’t notice. Leather Coat suddenly demands that she stop. He takes her into the office of a rundown used-car lot, telling her she needs to meet a friend of his. Leather Coat and his friend, CHUBBY-FACE, attempt to rape Isserley. Her total lack of genitals confuses both of them. Taking advantage of their befuddlement, Isserley pokes their eyes out — hard enough to pierce their brains — and runs away. Meanwhile, police investigating the body of the vodsel have set up a roadblock. They stop Isserley momentarily, then let her pass. Esswis asks about Isserley’s day. She’s traumatized, but he doesn’t notice.
At Arabella, distracted Isserley lets the pump overfill so much that it shoots out of the gas tank, spilling everywhere. Dora notices Isserley’s odd behavior and asks what’s wrong. After making excuses, Isserley admits she was raped. Suddenly shocked and compassionate, Isserley insists on taking her to the doctor and filing a report with the police. Isserley refuses, but Dora won’t take no for an answer, so Isserley drives away in a panic. Isserley picks up an Italian woman hitchhiking. She drugs her, but after considering it, dumps her on the side of the road. Back at the farm, Esswis is irate. Two police officers are there. They’ve been called in about the rape, which Dora reported. They start interrogating Isserley, but Esswis — claiming he’s trying to protect Isserley’s fragile state — sends them away. Then he interrogates Isserley. Isserley tells him she was confused and frightened. This incident leads Esswis to decide it’s too dangerous for them to stay. Now Isserley must succeed in finding a woman, or Vess will have them both killed.
Isserley stops at Arabella, telling Dora she was raped again and she’s ready to go to the police. Dora agrees to go with her. Despite a seeming genuine affection for Dora, Isserley drugs her. She thinks deeply about what she’s doing as she stares at the unconscious woman, and a tear forms. The narrator explains that Isserley had never shed emotional tears and found the experience confusing. Isserley meets Esswis on the beach, where he’s loading the others into the ship. Isserley watches the creatures drag Dora up into the ship. Esswis sends Isserley to wake Vess. She goes…but she takes Esswis’s shotgun with her. Isserley shoots Vess dead in his cottage, then drives her Toyota south until the engine gives out and it dies. Left with no other option, Isserley begins hitchhiking.
Comments:Under the Skin tells a bizarre, disturbing story about aliens living among us. Although it has plenty of redeeming qualities, the script is ultimately too dull and repetitive. As written, it merits a reluctant pass.
The story is deliberately paced, with many, many, many scenes of Isserely driving in silence, trying to pick up hitchhikers. The repetition is somewhat hypnotic at first, but by the middle of the second act it loses its luster and grows tedious. Other elements of the story — the arrival of Vess, the “rape” of Isserley — are startling in their effectiveness, but these individual moments are few and far between. The writer does a reasonably good job of building mystery in the first and second acts, but by the third act, the aliens’ goals are still unclear. Since the entire third act hinges on Esswis’s sudden decision that Isserley must succeed, clarifying this is essential to make the resolution coherent.
Isserley is an intentionally enigmatic protagonist, but it sort of works. She’s very expressive in her actions and rare tidbits of dialogue, so while her origin might remain a mystery, her feelings are subtle yet clear. Unfortunately, the writer opts to drive every revelation home with the use of an unnecessary, lazy narrator who does nothing more than explain what’s patently obvious. Esswis, Vess, and Dora do not get nearly as much screen time, but they all have surprising dimension.
This script might be too weird to find anything more than a cult audience, even with a high-profile actress playing Isserley.