In 1914, after the assassination of the Archduke but before the declarations of war, a ‘weather official’ (David Oakes) is deposited on an island near the Antarctic to spend a pretty futile year studying the winds. Vigelund, the man he is supposed to be replacing, has abandoned his shack and gone missing, leaving behind a notebook full of disturbing sketches and scrawls that ‘Darwin was wrong’. The only other human resident is a shaggy-bearded, barrel-chested lighthouse-keeper who refers to himself in the third person as Gruner (Ray Stevenson) and is initially interested in the newcomer only because he might bring tobacco. The Captain (reliable John Benfield) is wary about leaving the young man in such a threatening wilderness with such an obvious lunatic for company, but the narrator insists on doing his duty … though he’s plainly suffering a mild case of the disenchanted escapist urge to remove himself from human society which Gruner has in a far more extreme form. Throughout the film as the situation on the island gets more embattled and bizarre, we have an awareness that the Europe this pair have abandoned is surrendering to the same bloody madness on an industrial scale.
French director Xavier Gens has previously specialised in straight-up genre exercises with side order of theatrical misanthropicy (Frontiere(s), The Divide, The Crucifixion) but here ambitiously evokes the portentous yarns of Melville or Conrad, with a hint of the Poe of Arthur Gordon Pym in the austral setting. He delivers many sweeping shots of crashing waves and desolate ladscapes, with barely-glimpsed darting figures and the bleached bones of some sea-monster on the shore. As soon as night falls on the barren island (played by the warmer climes of Lanzarote), the story takes a turn into the world of H.P. Lovecraft as amphibious humanoids emerge from the seas to besiege the hut and the lighthouse, turning the film into a shudder pulp men’s adventure (the script by Jesus Olmo and Eron Sheean is adapted from a Spanish novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol) with conscious borrowings from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and its film adaptations (an influence discernible also in Hostile, which Gens produced). At first, Gruner – who has fortified his lighthouse with spikes – is willing to let the newcomer, whom he names Friend, be overwhelmed by the creatures he calls ‘toads’, but after the scientist has survived a night only by setting fire to his hut (and his library) the pair team up, with Friend bringing supplies (and ammunition) to the team. Also in residence is a female fish-person Friend names Aneris (Aura Garrido), kept as a sex slave by the bearish Gruner – raising the possibility that this little war was started by humanity.
Everyone’s identity is provisional – through the literary device of people assigning or claiming names – and so are any alliances and enmities, though the hordes of agile, Innsmouth-featured creatures are a fearsome threat and Gruner’s escalation of the war (by using dynamite and improvised artillery shells) suggests imminent apocalypse for both species if a truce cannot be made. Some of the later developments are predictable, but the performances of the central trio imply complications that undercut the twists and the horrors. Garrido, who was in the fun Spanish supernatural comedy Ghost Graduation, is remarkable as the keening mermaid monster, who evokes Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, the sleek Ricou Browning Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the vampire test subjects of Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (and, coincidentally, makes the film a fit companion to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water). Stevenson and Oakes, non-star British players, are excellent, with Oakes going from fresh-faced naif to bloodied, bearded semi-hermit, then opening up to new experiences which still drive him mad, and Stevenson living out the (overworked) opening Nietzsche quote (you know the one) by looking into the abyss and becoming the monster. It’s a bleak, rather thoughtful film with bursts of exciting, but grim action and Gens’ best to date. The creature design is by Arturo Balseiro, who also created fishy things for Stuart Gordon’s Dagon and has credits ranging from Pan’s Labyrinth to Little Britain.