Many works of surreal cinema bear equally baffling titles, but I can confidently say the title of Ben Aston’s 2014 short film HE TOOK HIS SKIN OFF FOR ME represents 100% truth in advertising. It’s also a pretty amazing work of “extremist drama” that’s more touching than you might expect.
Adapted from a short story by award-winning writer Maria Hummer, the haunting film (which was entirely crowd-funded) has been described as “a twisted modern-day fairy tale” and “Margaret Atwood meets David Cronenberg,” and I’d call that a pretty dead-on assessment.
On its surface (no pun intended), the film plays its absurd, grotesque scenario absolutely straight — but the literal peeling of the skin from an unnamed young man (Sebastian Armesto of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), who hangs his discarded dermis in a closet like a worn-out suit, slowly reveals the unspoken pain behind a couple’s seemingly unconditional relationship, and the bloody aftermath of this bizarre self-sacrifice begins to leave both literal and metaphorical stains on their domestic life.
While it fits quite neatly into the extreme horror mold, Aston is reluctant to pigeonhole the film; instead, he’s leaving it up to the viewer’s own feelings — be they disgust, fascination, or even a touch of romantic melancholy.
“I don’t want to tell people what the film should be,” Aston says on the film’s official site. “Even finding a genre to describe it is difficult. I want people to come to this film just like I came to the original story… completely unprepared.”
He does offer one all-purpose summation, however: “If you take off your skin just to be with somebody… That’s only ever going to end messy.”
That’s certainly true in this case. Watch and find out:
The whole premise would be absurd, if not for three crucial factors:
First, the skills of the performers — particularly actress Anna Maguire (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) as the “Me” of the title, whose tender narration and subtle expressions of love and distress speak volumes (there is no on-camera dialog; the man is mute, as if his identity has been stripped from him as well).
Second, the top-notch practical effects work by Jen Cardno (under the guidance of veteran FX artist Colin Arthur), whose anatomically-correct work is on par with “Skinless Frank” in Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER, and is often extremely uncomfortable to watch, as the man leaves trails of blood, pus and other viscous fluids as he goes about his day-to-day routine.
Third, the photography by Yiannis Manolopoulos (UTOPIA) transforms what could easily have been a gross-out exploitation concept into a surprisingly gorgeous widescreen fantasy canvas, dominated by bloody reds (of course), muted earth-tones and sharp, bottomless shadows.
The filmmakers have no qualms about revealing the makeup artistry involved, and even posted a step-by-step tutorial on the process of “skinning” the actor. Here’s a peek at the preliminary FX tests:
Their official site contains a wealth of information about the entire production, as well as a lengthy list of 2014 festival screenings — including Fantastic Fest, the BFI London Film Festival, Toronto After Dark, and many more.
If you’re interested in hearing the original short story read by the author, here’s a video of Maria Hummer reciting the complete version on camera:
Ben Aston’s follow-up short, the sci-fi romantic comedy RUSSIAN ROULETTE, was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, and he’s currently working on the supernaturally-themed short HALFTERLIFE.
We’re hoping he’ll make the leap to feature-length projects in the near future… stay tuned!