Cold Skin

Author: Jesús Olmo
Genre: Horror/Fantasy
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 5
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

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Two men fight strange monsters on an otherwise deserted island in the Atlantic.


1924. A Portuguese ship, illegally smuggling explosives, crashes on a deserted island. The island has a lighthouse, but it’s been modified so it points to the shoreline, rather than out to sea. Some of the crew survive the crash. GRUNER, the German lighthouse keeper, watches apathetically as the surviving sailors are devoured by mysterious, unseen creatures in the water. The next day, he takes their dinghy and pulls it to a hidden cove on the other side of the island. A youngish, intellectual man known only as FRIEND rides on a ship populated by a colorful crew. CAPTAIN AXEL (50s, Danish) brings them to the same creepy island, in daylight. The crew find the place strange, so Axel is forced to go ashore with Friend. Friend is taking over as the new Royal weather official. When they arrive at the weather official’s cabin, they find it empty. Both Axel and Friend are confused. They go to the lighthouse, which they notice has been eerily fortified using basic tools, supply, and timber. Gruner refuses to open the door, so Axel and Friend barge in. Gruner greets them bitterly. He refuses to tell either of them what happened to the previous weather official. Axel urges Friend to abandon the weather post and return with him. Friend insists he will honor his contract. Axel and his boat leave.

That night, after Friend unpacks, he’s attacked by several strange creatures, like the ones who attacked the Portuguese. They’re human in shape, but they look oddly amphibious. They’re referred to as toads because of their amphibious qualities. One of the toads slips a hand through an odd hatch in the door. Friend beats it away but more crawl through the windows. Friend takes a burning log — burning his hands in the process — to beat on the toads. They scurry away. Terrified, he stays up all night, listening as the toads rush around his cabin, wailing like banshees. The next morning, Friend bandages his burnt hands, then goes to the lighthouse. He tries to beg Gruner to let him stay in the fortified lighthouse, but Gruner shoots at him. Friend returns to his cabin, where he spends the day laying traps for the toads. His most useful trap is a pseudo-bomb using a can of gas, a gasoline-soaked rope, and several logs and books. That night, the toads attack. Friend lights the fuse on his bomb as they approach. It takes a few of them out, and the light of the explosion scares some away, but after a few moments, the toads continue to attack. Friend tries to dump boiling water on them, but it doesn’t pain them. He bites one toad, then shoots another — anything to keep them away. Somehow, he manages to survive through the night.

The next morning, Friend takes his rifle into the trees and waits until he gets a good shot at Gruner. When he does, Friend finds that he can’t shoot him. Instead, Friend offers Gruner his huge supply of ammunition in exchange for letting him stay in the lighthouse. Gruner agrees. They spend most of the day carrying ammo from Friend’s cabin to the lighthouse. Friend notices Gruner keeps a female toad, simply called TOAD, as a sort of slave — she loyally catches food for Gruner, allows him to have sex with her, and makes no effort to attack him. That night, Friend and Gruner team up for an onslaught against the toads, who come running up the beach. Toad, for unknown reasons, sits at the bottom of the lighthouse and sings an eerie melody as the attack takes place. This leads to a lengthy montage: during the day, Gruner and Friend set up traps and repair the lighthouse’s defenses; at night, they attack wave after wave of toads. Through it all, their uneasy alliance never builds into anything resembling friendship. Neither talk much, except to bark orders at one another. At one point, Friend considers shooting flares to attrac the attention of passing ships. Gruner observes that there are no shipping lanes within eyesight. The lighthouse stopped having any function years ago, and the Portuguese only crashed because it was traveling under the radar. The only ship that will come will bring Friend’s replacement — in a year.

One night, the toads simply stop attacking. Noticing Toad’s savage intelligence, Friend speculates that maybe the toads are planning something. Gruner refuses to believe they have any intelligence. One morning, Toad’s rustling awakens Friend. He watches her leave the lighthouse, then follows her to the woods, where they have sex. That night, the toads begin attacking again. Friend tells Gruner they can’t keep going on like this — the toads’ numbers are too big. Gruner tells Friend about the dinghy, that he can repair it and leave if he wants to. Friend knows that’s suicide. The next morning, Friend rustles up an old diving suit. He convinces Gruner to help him dive to retrieve the dynamite from the Portuguese ship. They can use it to lay more elaborate traps. Friend goes to the cove to get the dinghy, so they can sail out to the wrecked ship. On his way, he sees Toad. They have sex again. Gruner sees them but says nothing. Afterward, Friend tries to teach Toad the word “friend.” She doesn’t understand at first. When she catches on, she reveals her name: ANERIS. Friend returns to the lighthouse with the dinghy.

As Friend and Gruner row out to the ship, it begins to snow. Friend dives, while Gruner uses a manual air pump to keep Friend’s oxygen supply strong. Friend retrieves several crates of dynamite from the ship and brings it to the dinghy. On his final trip, Gruner stops pumping Friend’s oxygen. He collapses, getting pinned by a box. Gruner prepares to abandon Friend, but at the last minute, he decides to start pumping. Meanwhile, under the water, Friend is rescued by a group of baby toads. When Friend returns to the surface, Gruner attempts to shoot the babies, but Friend refuses to allow it. That doesn’t stop Gruner, but it gives the babies a chance to flee. They return to the lighthouse and plant dynamite all over the place, leading to various detonators at the top of the lighthouse. At night, the toads don’t attack. Friend considers the possibility that they smelled the dynamite, but Gruner insists they’re too stupid. Days pass. The toads will not attack. Friend ask Gruner if he has military experience. Gruner says he used to hunt wild game but was never in a formal war. Gruner asks the same of Friend, who says he fought a “patriotic war” but never enlisted in legitimate military service.

When Gruner gets fed up from the lack of toads, he begins to beat Aneris for information. She can’t talk. Friend tries to calm Gruner down by making a suggestion: that tonight, they leave the lighthouse door open. Gruner fears it’s too dangerous, but Friend thinks they’ve laid enough dynamite to keep the toads at bay. Even if a few get past their defenses, it’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel. That night, Friend waits inside the lighthouse, while Gruner mans the detonators outside. Friend hears Aneris start to sing and hears strange noises from outside, but Gruner doesn’t detonate a thing. Friend wonders what his problem is. Gruner doesn’t answer. Friend runs outside and finds Gruner paralyzed with fear. He looks over the sandbags they’ve erected for the blast and sees an enormous mob of toads, possibly thousands. Friend detonates the first couple of charges. The power of the dynamite, and the impact on the toads’ forces, begin to excite Gruner. He takes over. Friend quickly realizes they packed too much dynamite, but Gruner’s in an odd state. He continues to detonate until he destroys nearly the entire beach. The toads finally stop coming.

The next day, Friend and Gruner dig a huge mass grave for all the dead toads. Aneris sits in quiet contemplation after watching so many of her species die. At dusk, Friend sees a group of young toads scurry across land. Gruner’s enraged that they aren’t all dead. That night, no other toads come. Gruner knows they aren’t all dead and wonders where the rest of them are. Friend points out Aneris’s rudimentary intelligence and docile demeanor. He believes toads are smarter than Gruner thinks. Gruner responds by attempting to strangle Friend to death. He only stops when Aneris lets out a piercing scream. Gruner has an idea to create a rudimentary cannon that can shoot flares over the water. Friend refuses to help Gruner with it, because he does not want to massacre intelligent creatures. Some time late, Friend returns to the weather official’s cottage for the first time since he arrived. He finds a photograph dated 1900 that shows a much younger Gruner. Just then, Aneris enters with fresh bruises. Friend is enraged by Gruner’s savagery. Suddenly, her ears perk up and she runs away. Friend follows her. He realizes she’s hearing a ship on the horizon. Friend runs up to the lighthouse and tries to convince Gruner to use his flare cannon to call the ship. Gruner insists the ship is too far to see the flare. Friend tries to work the cannon himself but can’t figure it out. This, combined with Gruner’s arguing, allows the ship to drift past the horizon.

At dusk, the small toads come back. Gruner tries to kill them, but they move too quickly. The next night, the small toads return with some adults. They don’t attack; in fact, the adults encourage the small one to go into the lighthouse. Gruner sets up his flare cannon and shoots the child. Friend tries to save the child but cannot. He goes back to the lighthouse and starts a vicious fight with Gruner, taking his weapons. Gruner manages to find an axe as an army of toads appear in retribution for the dead child. Gruner comes after them with an axe but is eventually lost in the huge mass of toads. Friend remains in the lighthouse, alone, looking disturbingly like Gruner as he uses his clothes and sleeps in his bed. Eventually, a ship arrives with an eager, new weather official, who mistakes Friend for Gruner. Friend lets the weather official spend his first night there, and is bitterly amused when the weather official beats down the door of the lighthouse the following morning. Meanwhile, Aneris returns to sea.


Cold Skin tells an eerie, fantastical story that attempts the same sort of horror-fantasy-allegory as films like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Fall. Despite a promising start, the story gets too repetitive to sustain itself, and its story is simply too weird to appeal to anyone but hardcore fantasy fans. As written, it merits a pass.

The first act does a wonderful job of setting up a terrifying island, full of horror-movie monsters. The Arctic climate, sinister Gruner and his filthy lighthouse, and the total isolation help to build a creepy atmosphere. The first monster attack is incredibly disturbing and well-written.

Things change in the second act, when the writer establishes Friend and Gruner’s uneasy alliance against the monsters and introduces Aneris. The first few scenes of Friend and Gruner setting up for attacks, then spending their nights killing toads, ratchets up the suspense by giving the impression this is all building to something bigger. However, too many of these scenes start to make the script feel redundant. The pacing slows, and it loses the sense of foreboding. Even when Friend and Gruner retrieve dynamite to kill the toads in bulk, the story continues to feel repetitive instead of intriguing.

The third act changes things up by giving Friend a conscience, but it feels more like a plot contrivance than a natural development for the character. It also makes the resolution incredibly unsatisfying — rather than allowing this conscience to power him through the rest of his time on the island, he succumbs to insanity and loneliness. In addition to the bleakness of this ending, it does not seem like a natural development of this character. It’s another gimmick, designed to give the story an unearned ironic ending.

Although each of the three main characters is surprisingly well-defined, the fact that there are only three contributes to the redundancy that plagues the story. It limits the writer’s ability to craft subplots that allow for variety, so it just shifts back and forth from planning attacks, attacking, and random sex acts with Aneris. Despite making the characters initially intriguing, Friend’s drastic, unnatural personality shifts in the third acts have a detrimental effect on his believability. Also, audiences will have a hard time rooting for a character who effectively rapes, repeatedly, a woman Friend and Gruner see as a “pet.”

Posted by D. B. Bates on May 8, 2009 10:18 PM