For audiences needing a psychological horror fix, Derek Franson’s Comforting Skin may do just the trick. It certainly did for me.
It’s a film that starts unsteadily as our main lead is introduced to us. Koffie (yes, that’s her name, and she’s played terrifically by Victoria Bidewell) is down and out and feeling as if no one wants anything to do with her. She’s dishevelled, has a past that hasn’t been bright, and hangs around people who are as self-loathing or hampered as she is.
She decides one night to let loose and take a chance on a wildcard decision – to get a tattoo. Nothing changes, her new artistic add-on is brushed off by others, and Koffie has just about had it.
Events take a turn for the supernatural and the unexplainable when Koffie begins to hear voices in her head. Her tattoo moves from her upper back all the way down to her toes. Understandably frightened, Koffie is convinced she’s losing her mind, just to be convinced that maybe these voices are not so bad. Maybe these voices are just what she needed to find her importance.
Comforting Skin is not just a low budget, slow burn creep-show, but a story about finding confidence and maintaining it – even though the people around you may not be up for the same task. These voices fill Koffie with energy and a breath of freshness. It’s never false and these voices are never using her for alternative purposes. These hidden whispers want to convince Koffie that life is worth living.
Inevitably though – as this is a horror – the voices take a turn for the worse as we hear them becoming jealous of those around Koffie and the more stabilized relationships that happen because of her rising confidence. Close friends like Nathan (played by Tygh Runyan) are targeted as threats. These voices helped Koffie and as far as their concerned, they will be the only friends that exist in her closed off world.
Franson handles the slow burn structure and formatting well in his direction and in his script. He doesn’t over glamorize the world Bidewell’s character sees bright light in her life, and he certainly keeps her shut in life seem very realistic. By executing the story like this, we see that even though Koffie may have taken on a new attitude, it’s only slightly infectious to her environment. It may sound drab and suggest that little changes, but I appreciate that in a cynical way. It shows that Franson’s writing and direction won’t be highjacked by a smiley mainstream glaze.
A large part of Comforting Skin does feel too theatrical though – as if Franson’s story was originally a stage play and is now being lifted for a cinematic adaptation and no adjustments were made. The acting looks and feels stagey and the writer/director uses a fair number of one-shot takes as we follow the characters through obvious sets. It even comes down to how the scene is shot like a television sitcom.
When the voices join Koffie, the movie takes on the mould of something we’d see in a movie theatre. The shooting and the editing becomes more innovative and the actors step up their game. The supporting cast have their own secured backstories and the performers have done a solid job at building their characters and making them believable – even if it sounds like they’re projecting their lines from the stage in an amphitheatre occasionally. Actress Jane Sowerby is guilty of this as she makes it thuddingly clear that Synthia, the local floozy, has a broken past and isn’t willing to let go of her partying ways.
Bidewell makes a great leading lady, taking her character through a rainbow of different emotions. Her internal struggle with the voices while also growing used to this strange occurrence is done with a straight face, proving her to be a more than competent actress to make this fantastical material authentic. However, even though she can properly make the cracked-out side of Koffie as equally believable as the enlightened side of her, she has the slight tendency to overact as she snaps at people under the full wash of these voices.
There’s a final punch in Comforting Skin that feels out of place – which says a lot in a surreal movie such as this. Other people get pulled in to Koffie’s situation with results that feel as if they’re only there to add that extra off-putting fingerprint to make you leave the theatre having the heebie-jeebies.
However, a lot of great things go on in Comforting Skin and it’s consistently interesting and thought provoking. Bidewell’s stripped down performance (sometimes literally) is enough of a resonation and when it’s mixed with the concepts Franson excels at, you have the ingredients of a well admired creepy flick.