Cold Skin first came to my attention through Shudder. I read the premise about two men in a historic time-period and a desolate Antarctic landscape fighting off hordes of sea-monsters and immediately thought, “Yep, sounds like my jam.” And as soon as I found out via the Shock Waves podcast that the film was based off of a book, I knew I needed to pull a classic book-nerd move and read the book before I watched the movie.
“We are never very far from those we hate. For this reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love. An appalling fact, I knew it well enough when I embarked. But some truths deserve our attention; others are best left alone.”
This quote is both the opening line of the novel Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol as well as the movie of the same name. It does a perfect job of setting up the tone and theme of the story ahead. An unnamed narrator is dropped off on an island near the Antarctic Circle to observe weather patterns. The only other human found on the island is a lighthouse keeper named Gruner. The two men are total opposites—the narrator is a methodical, sensible man running from the disappointment and chaos of war, while Gruner is almost like an animal due to his mangy appearance and ill-tempered, unpredictable nature.
The two men begrudgingly form an alliance against the “Toads”—amphibious creatures that come out of the ocean to attack the island at night. Added into the mix is a lady-Toad living in the lighthouse as Gruner’s companion (in aalllll senses of the word). We watch the two men struggle to survive and to achieve individual goals: the narrator seeks rescue and a return to civilization, while Gruner wants no part of the world he left behind and desires only isolation and the complete obliteration of the Toads.
Things become a bit murkier when the narrator realizes he’s replacing one war with another and begins to try to reason with Gruner to establish peace. The two men’s opposing views of the situation as well as the narrator’s eventual feelings for Gruner’s lady-Toad take this story from classic us versus them into the also-classic us versus ourselves territory.
I really enjoyed this book. The surprisingly jungle-like setting created a claustrophobic, ominous, nature-as-invader tone for the story—if you’re reading closely the first few pages really establish the island as place that gives zero fucks about its human inhabitants. Which seems fitting—the environment won’t embrace its inhabitants in the same way readers can’t. Readers never really get close to the narrator, Gruner, or even Aneris (the lady-Toad that the narrator refers to as “the mascot” for most of the book) since all of them act so terribly in their own way. Gruner is hostile and evasive, the narrator is oblivious and obnoxiously stuck on being logical to his own detriment, and Aneris is apathetic to pretty much everything going on around her. We’re also not given a lot of backstory—the reader never learns much about the origins of any of the characters which in one way is great because it leaves a lot of mystery, but it also is one more way we’re kept at arm’s distance from the story.
I appreciated that the book left a lot for the readers to wonder about and didn’t explain a lot of the mystery, but I would have appreciated more glimpse into who the characters really are. This is something that the film definitely improves on—we get to see more of the human side of the characters and so they’re much more likable and real than their novel counter-parts. I never felt like I could really care about the characters in the book because I didn’t really get to know much about them and what I did see was just their absolutely terrible behavior to each other and the Toads. The film takes these rough characters and relationships and makes them more understandable. I’m all about grittiness, but I can only take so much shitty behavior. The film makes some things a little too rosy and takes a few steps into cliché monster and human territory, but it was a nice change of pace after reading the book.
I think the book and the movie are two really good halves of an even-better whole. Any aspects I didn’t like in one were improved on in the other. I would give four stars to each, and I highly recommend consuming them as a pair.