Review: ‘Skin Walker,’ starring Amber Anderson, Udo Kier and Jefferson Hall

August 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Amber Anderson in “Skin Walker” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Skin Walker” 

Directed by Christian Neuman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe, the horror film “Skin Walker” features an all-white cast representing the wealthy and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman goes back to her family home to confront dark secrets in her family’s past.

Culture Audience: “Skin Walker” will appeal primarily to people who like convoluted but stylish-looking horror films.

Udo Kier in “Skin Walker” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

The horror film “Skin Walker” (written and directed by Christian Neuman) is best enjoyed if people know up front that it’s the type of movie where a scene that looks like reality could be a delusion of one of the characters. The truth is revealed at the end of the movie, but “Skin Walker” deliberately confuses and plays guessing games with viewers as part of the overall psychological horror that the film intends to convey.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed European country, is told from the perspective of Regine Kirk (played Amber Anderson), who’s in her late 20s and living in a big city. Regine is a semi-Goth-looking woman whose somber aura indicates that she’s not very happy with her life. The beginning of the movie shows her at a nightclub with other young people wearing a lot of black and dancing to industrial music. She spends the night with the guy that she was dancing with at the club, and he drops her off at home the next day. Is he her boyfriend or is he just a fling?

The next day, Regine goes to work in a factory, wearing the same drab uniform as her other co-workers. One day, when she goes home, the guy from the nightclub is there, which gives viewers the impression that he and Regine live together. His name is Jacob (played by Nicolas Godart), and he informs Regine that someone is there to visit her.

The unexpected visitor is a mysterious bearded man, who looks like he’s in his late 30s or early 40s His name is later revealed as Robert (played by Jefferson Hall), and he’s there to tell Regine some unsettling news: Her younger brother Isaac, who was believed to be dead, is really alive.

Regine emphatically tells Isaac that her brother is dead, while Robert tells Regine, “You look just like your mother.” Regine angrily asks Robert, “How do you know my mum? I’ve never seen you before in my life.” As proof that he knows Regine, he shows her a photo from the summer of 1998, when she was about 6 or 7 years old, that shows Regine, her mother and Robert together outside having a picnic on the grass.

Robert then drops another bombshell: He tells Regine that Isaac is his son. “He killed your grandmother,” Robert tells Regine. “They lied to you. He’ll start looking for you. You need to come home.” At this point, Regine is so upset that she wants Robert to leave, so Jacob throws Robert out of the apartment.

What Robert has told Regine has disturbed her so much that she decides to go back to her large family estate in the countryside to find out what really happened to Isaac, who was born when Regine was about 7 or 8 years old. Before she makes the trip, Regine visits her mother Rose (played by Sophie Mousel), who is living in a psychiatric institution, and tells her mother that she’s going home. Regine’s parents divorced years ago, when Rose left her husband for another man.

Regine goes home to the type of isolated mansion that is often seen in horror movies. It looks “normal” on the outside, but the inside is cold, dark and foreboding. Her father Claus (played by Udo Kier) is mourning the death of his mother (played by Marja-Leena Junker), who does not have a name in the movie. Robert has said that Regine’s grandmother was murdered by Isaac, but Claus denies it when Regine confronts him with this information.

It’s shown in the movie’s many flashbacks that Claus had a love/hate relationship with his domineering mother. Regine was an only child until Isaac was born. (Juliette Gillis plays Regine as a child in these flashbacks.) And there are lingering resentments over Rose’s infidelity, which essentially broke up the family.

Claus isn’t very happy to see his estranged daughter Regine, whose other reason for coming back home is to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Claus coldly tells Regine, “I’d never imagine that you’d set foot here again. I want you to leave after the funeral. You shouldn’t be here.”

Meanwhile, Robert is seen at a local bar getting drunk and babbling about his “lost son” Isaac and how he has to find him. Robert believes that Regine’s family secretly sent Isaac to live in an orphanage and that Isaac is now out to get revenge on the family. Robert is also seen showing up unannounced at the family home and asking Claus if anyone knows about their arrangement. Claus says no.

What exactly is this secret arrangement? And what was it about Isaac that caused the family to possibly reject him? It’s shown in flashbacks that Isaac was born with a severe deformity. When Robert sees Regine has come back to the area, they have another confrontation where she tells him, “Isaac died a few days after birth. I saw him. He was deformed and incapable of living.”

But is Isaac alive? And if he’s dead, what really happened to him? Those questions are answered by the end of the movie, which also has a strange character named Dr. Mantell (played by Luc Feit), who’s supposed to be Rose’s psychiatrist, but somehow he’s followed Regine to the countryside. Dr. Mantell begins stalking Regine, and he starts inflicting some terror on her.

“Skin Walker” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Neuman, who has a lot of talent in creating the right imagery for this Gothic-inspired horror film. There are many scenes that are very stylishly filmed by cinematographer Amandine Klee in ways that seem to be inspired by classic Dario Argento movies that have a rich color palette but dark overtones to never let viewers forget that they’ve stepped into an atmosphere of menace and treachery. And although many of the scenes take place outdoors or in the spacious mansion, the movie conveys a type of emotional claustrophobia that adds to the horror.

As Regine’s creepy father Claus, Kier is effective in his role, but he’s played these types of enigmatic and weird characters before, so there isn’t really too much of a surprise in his acting. The movie is really about Regine. Anderson gives a very chilling performance as a troubled woman whose inner turmoil unfolds like layers in the story, which takes viewers down a proverbial rabbit hole with her.

Because the movie plays tricks on viewers about what is real and what isn’t real in the story, “Skin Walker” might frustrate people who are expecting a more straightforward narrative in this horror film. It’s the type of movie that will grow on people if they think back to scenes where there were clues that something was off-kilter. Remembering the story in hindsight might compel people to watch the movie again to see how those clues were hiding in plain sight and how the confusing messiness of the narrative is actually just like a tangled web that makes more sense if you see how the points connect with each other.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Skin Walker” on VOD on August 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Emma’ (2020), starring Anya Taylor-Joy

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anya Taylor-Joy in "Emma"
Anya Taylor-Joy in “Emma” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Emma” (2020)

Directed by Autumn de Wilde

Culture Representation: This comedic adapation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” is set in the fictional countryside town of Highbury, England, and revolves around the white upper-class main characters and some representation of their working-class servants.

Culture Clash: The story’s title character is a young woman who likes to meddle in people’s love lives as a matchmaker, and her snobbish ways about social status sometimes cause problems.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jane Austen novels and period movies about British culture.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in “Emma” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

This delightful and gorgeously filmed adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” stays mostly faithful to the original story but spices it up a bit to appeal to modern audiences. In her feature-film debut, director Autumn de Wilde takes the comedy of “Emma” and infuses it with more impish energy that’s lustier and more vibrant than previous film and TV adaptations.

The title character of the story is Emma Woodhouse (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman of privilege in her early 20s, who lives with her widowed father in the fictional countryside town of Highbury, England. Emma is a somewhat spoiled bachelorette who thinks she has such high intelligence and excellent judgment that she takes it upon herself to play matchmaker to people she deems worthy of her romance advice.

The movie takes place over the course of a year, beginning one summer and ending the following summer. Viewers know this because different seasons are introduced in bold letters, like a different chapter in a book.

One of the changes from the book that the movie makes is that it begins with Emma attending the wedding of her friend and former governess Miss Taylor, (played by Gemma Whelan) to Mr. Weston (played by Rupert Graves). (The book begins after Emma has attended the wedding.) Because Emma had introduced the Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston to each other, Emma feels that she has what it takes to play matchmaker to the unmarried people in her social circle. It’s at the wedding that viewers are introduced to most of the story’s main characters.

Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (played by Bill Nighy), is a loving dad but often exasperated by Emma’s antics. He’s a hypochondriac who tries to shield himself from imaginary drafts of cold that he’s sure will cause him to get sick.

George Knightley (played by Johnny Flynn) is the handsome and cynical brother-in-law of Emma’s older sister Isabella (played by Chloe Pirrie). He thinks Emma can be an annoying meddler, but he nevertheless seems fascinated by what she does.

Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor) is a social-climbing local vicar who has his eye on courting Emma, mostly because of her wealth and privilege. He’s unaware that Emma doesn’t see him has husband material.

Miss Bates (played by Miranda Hart) is a friendly, middle-aged spinster who is slightly ashamed about being unmarried at her age. She lives with her mother, Mrs. Bates (played by Myra McFadyen), who is a friend of Mr. Woodhouse.

Missing from the wedding is Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill (played by Callum Turner), who has a different last name because he was adopted by his aunt, who is frequently ill. Frank chose to stay home with his aunt instead of attending his father’s wedding.

Emma, who says multiple times in the story that she has no interest in getting married, nevertheless takes it upon herself to tell other people who would be suitable spouses for them. She starts with her gullible best friend Harriet (played by Mia Goth), a slightly younger woman of unknown parentage who idolizes Emma for being more glamorous and seemingly more worldly than Harriet is. Knightley can see that Harriet will be easily manipulated by Emma, and he expresses disapproval over Emma befriending Harriet.

A local farmer named Mr. Martin (played by Connor Swindells) has asked Harriet to marry him, but Emma convinces Harriet to decline the proposal. Why? Even though Mr. Martin is kind and clearly adores Harriet, Emma thinks that Harriet deserves to marry someone who’s higher up on the social ladder. As far as Emma is concerned, Mr. Elton would be an ideal husband for Harriet, so Emma sets out to pair up Harriet and Mr. Elton, whom Emma describes as “such a good-humored man.” It’s too bad that Emma doesn’t see that his humor is really buffoonery.

Mr. Knightley occasionally stops by to visit the Woodhouses, and he warns Emma not to interfere in other people’s love lives. He thinks Mr. Elton would be a terrible match for Harriet. Mr. Knightley is right, of course, but Emma ignores his warnings. Emma begins to manipulate communications between Harriet and Mr. Elton, with the goal that they will end up together and happily married. At one point in the story, Emma and Mr. Knightley have a big argument and they stop talking to each other.

Meanwhile, a new ingenue comes on the scene named Jane Fairfax (played by  Amber Anderson), who is the orphaned niece of Miss Bates. Jane (who is close to Emma’s age) is attractive, intelligent, talented. And everyone seems to be gushing about how wonderful she is, so Emma gets jealous. As Emma complains in a catty moment, “One is very sick of the name Jane Fairfax!”

Frank Churchill, a very eligible bachelor, begins spending more time in the area. And it isn’t long before Emma has thoughts about who would make a suitable wife for him.

However, things don’t go as planned in Emma’s matchmaking schemes. A series of events (and a love triangle or two) make Emma frustrated that things aren’t going her way. Unlike most heroines of romantic stories, Emma can be very difficult, since she can be bossy, selfish and occasionally rude. However, there are moments when she redeems herself, such as when she tries to make amends for her mistakes. If you know anything about romantic comedies and don’t know anything about how “Emma” ends, you can still figure out what will happen and if she’ll fall in love.

One of the changes made in this “Emma” screenplay (written by Eleanor Catton) that’s different from the book is that it puts more heat in the characters’ sexuality, with a makeout scene that’s definitely not described in the book. Another change is Emma shows more acknowledgement of people in the working-class, such as her servants and Mr. Martin, by interacting with them more than she does in the novel.

As Emma, actress Taylor-Joy brings a little bit more of a “hot mess” attitude to the role than Gwyneth Paltrow did when she starred in 1996’s “Emma.” Whereas Paltrow’s version of Emma was the epitome of prim and proper, Taylor-Joy’s version gives the impression that she would be ready to show her legs or knickers under the right circumstances. And as Mr. Knightley, Flynn’s pouty-lipped delivery gives him a smoldering quality that Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley didn’t quite have in 1996’s “Emma.”

“Emma” director de Wilde comes from a music-video background (she’s helmed several videos for rock singer Beck), and perhaps this background explains why this version of “Emma” has a snappy rhythm to the pacing, which is sort of a tribute to 1940s screwball comedies. This pacing is subtle if this is the first version of “Emma” that someone might see, but it’s more noticeable when compared to other movie and TV versions of “Emma,” which tend to be more leisurely paced.

This version of “Emma” is also pitch-perfect when it comes to its costume design (by Alexandra Byrne), production design (by Kave Quinn), art direction (by Alice Sutton) and set decoration (by Stella Fox), because everything will feel like you’ve been transported to the luxrious English estates of the era. The costume design in particular is worthy of an Oscar nomination.

“Emma” certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea for people who don’t like watching period pieces about stuffy British people. However, fans of Austen’s “Emma” novel will find a lot to enjoy about this memorable movie adaptation.

Focus Features released “Emma” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Emma” to March 20, 2020.

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