Phobia Philms: ‘Under the Skin’

In “Phobia Philms,” I plan on reviewing and recommending scary movies based on real phobias, of which there is no shortage of, specifically what makes them scary and how they represent our anxieties. 

Previous film: I Am Legend


Thalassophobia – fear of the ocean and similarly open spaces

I went back and forth on whether to use Under the skin or Jaws. Jaws would be too obvious for fear of sharks, and that wasn’t really why it was scary. Screw it! Lightning round: the shark is never scary. All the fear in Jaws happens in foreplay. The yellow barrels, The fish finder radar beeps. The diegetic music. The occasional blood geyser. And most of all, the creepy calmness of the water surface just before something breaks through. The water’s surface is a portal to an alien world where people are not naturally equipped to survive and lives a vast ecosystem that is ready to test our place on the food chain, a real fantastic contrast to the traditional purifying symbolism of water. That gateway metaphor is half of why this works so well for Under the skin.

In Under the skin, Scarlet Johansson plays a “visitor” of some kind (alien in the source novel, but unexplained in the movie). When we first meet her, she is stealing the clothes off a dead body and then disposing of that body. She spends most of her time trolling bars and other nightspots for impressionable horny men willing to drop their guard to get a piece of ScarJo. Who amongst us wouldn’t go googly eyed? Shot with natural light (or at least light manufactured to seem natural) and a found footage vibe, many of her flirtatious scenes are claimed to be genuinely candid, although I don’t how people could not recognize the very popular movie star chit-chatting them up.

She puts them under some sort of hypnosis (or maybe ScarJo really is that striking) because when she takes them home, they don’t notice her home has no rooms. It is just flat black darkness seemingly going for infinity in every direction. Once they strip themselves and follow her deeper in the darkness, the ground gives way. The darkness starts to swallow them up in an effect that looks like water, specifically that they are slowly walking deeper and deeper into a single body of water until they are completely submerged. I think it is important that they do so willingly, as if once it is started, it is impossible to fight. Calm as Hindu cows, so to speak, as they just float. It is eerie in a peaceful way. That is what often makes oceans and other bodies of water so scary. When they are still and calm, their power is always underestimated. Whether it is swimming or boating or submerging yourself WITH the appropriate gear, there are still a million things that could go wrong. And probably will.

This is no more apparent than in the best scene of this entire movie, one that simply describing  to you will not do it justice. So, I’m going to show it to you, since it has been uploaded to YouTube, however, I suggest, if you haven’t already, to watch this scene in its original context of the movie. That I will attempt to describe. When not trolling for men or doing her whole hypnotic vampire thing on those men, ScarJo just mills around observing humanity. After a while, we take on her point of view (sort of?). All these hypocritical and illogical choices that would normally seem like heroic and/or romantic gestures first seem silly through her eyes, and as we catch up, shame sets in for ever thinking that way. And the heartbreak of this particular scene, centered on the unapologetic nature of the ocean, will hit you all at once. Like a tidal wave.

Next time: Michael Shannon goes crazy and doesn’t tell anyone.