As far as Oscar-themed movie trends go, sex and sea-monsters is a bit of an odd one. But between the rising success of Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-fave The Shape of Water, and now French director Xavier Gens’s latest Cold Skin, it’s apparently all the rage. And while Gens’ film isn’t quite the swirling cross-species romance the awards season voters are apparently going crazy for, it’s certainly worth tracking down for its own merits. Cheaper true, but with a much darker heart, Cold Skin is (quite literally) a very different beast entirely.

What begins as a fairly humble adventure; an early 20th-century weather man, sent to a seemingly abandoned island as the First World War approaches, soon twists and shapes itself into what is essentially (and rather ironically) a war film. Because out on the island, David Oakes’ nameless wanderer very quickly finds that he and the local lighthouse keeper (a very heavily Cast Away-ed Ray Stevenson) aren’t alone after all, and a decades-long struggle with a race of amphibious sea people is still very much ablaze.

In any other hands, it’s a plot that might feel a little too silly or basic to ever really take-off, but with genre-regular Gens at the helm (a name you might recognise from The ABCs of Death or – less likely – the Tim Olyphant-starring Hitman movie), Cold Skin feels anchored in tight. It’s a film that takes its fantasy seriously, invests a lot of time in its creature make-up and special effects and knows exactly where the buck stops with its plotting. There’s no baggy flashbacks or long origin tales, and the Lovecraftian-ish roots of the whole thing never feel too exploited. Just a simple, streamlined monster movie, with enough heart and brains to keep itself chugging along nearly all the way to the end.

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Nearly being the ample word here, because things do start to drag a little midway. Beyond the initial excitement, Cold Skin settles in for a long winter around the half-hour mark and from there, there’s not an awful lot of turns or developments plot-wise. It’s not an immediate problem; for quite a while the constant, churning battles between man and monster themselves feel like enough, but there’s only so many times you can see the exact same siege, and the exact same character dynamic, be recycled over and over before even the action itself starts to grate.

Stevenson and Oakes are a steady pair, and their snappy back-and-forth does keep things alive just about, but the real interest here comes from Spanish actress Aura Garrido who just feels seriously underused. Domesticated, abused and permanently in the most complex situation of the film, it’s an entirely wordless performance that totally nails the heart of the film, but one that ends up sadly playing second fiddle to the constant, thoroughly tiring cycle of violence.

All-in, Cold Skin is a world that’s very much worth getting lost in, and although it’s most fascinating character never seems to quite manage the crescendo she deserves,  the very fact that she exists on screen is enough. It’s an unusual slant on historical fantasy, but one driven straight at the heart with a surprising dose of honesty, which puts it head and shoulders above any number of others.