From the small, beach-blessed Caribbean island of Antigua comes The Skin, a full-length feature film screened at Toronto’s CaribbeanTales Film Festival as part of its North American/European-wide tour. The fourth film by husband-and-wife team Howard and Mitzi Allen, The Skin is a supernatural thriller steeped in Caribbean folkloric mysticism made doubly eerie by its seemingly normal setting in a fine villa in modern Antigua.
Plot-wise, paying that villa’s mortgage is young couple Lisa and Michael Fenton’s driving concern as the bank moves to foreclose on them. But despite Lisa’s determined efforts to raise money, even a yard sale of all their household belongings added to photographer Michael’s assignments, they always fall short.
Their luck changes (for the scarier!) when Michael happens upon a centuries-old vase buried deep in the ruins of Betty’s Hope, a former sugar estate. (Spoiler alert: he notices it while peeing in the woods after a photo shoot there.) Lisa scrubs the filthy vase clean, rinses out its disgusting and unidentifiable contents, and Michael sells it to Felix, an expatriate antique dealer, for enough money to acquit their mortgage and indulge in a clothes-shopping spree.
And that’s when the normalcy of the everyday world spins into the mystery of the demonic past, and the thoroughly modern Fentons make the terrifying acquaintance of a soucayant, an evil spirit disguised by day as an gruesome crone who strips off her skin at night and assumes the form of a fireball to penetrate random victims’ homes in search of blood or a baby she can sacrifice.
Lisa remains sceptical about things supernatural. But when the mystic Vision arrives from Jamaica to work counter-magic, her unbelief is a sharp counterpoint to the escalating nightly terror wrought by the enraged soucayant in an increasingly frenzied search for her skin.
The Skin’s special effects are as sophisticated and otherworldly as the dialogue is simple and matter-of-fact. This is a triumph (among many) in a film produced for the stupendously low dollar figure of US $100,000. It is also a tribute to Mitzi Allen’s producer’s genius, who ensured that every dollar earned by product placement, from rolls of Cottonelle in the bathroom to a whirlwind shopping spree and fashion show in Antiguan clothing shops, was stretched to gossamer thinness.
The characters were ably acted by emerging Antiguan actors (Aisha Ralph as Lisa, Brent Simon as Michael) and renowned Jamaican actors Carl Bradshaw (Vision) and Peter Williams (Detective Morgan). Antiguan dancer and choreographer Veron Stoute Humphreys, who made a sensational acting debut as the soucayant, deserves special mention. All played to the gently sardonic humour – a brief closeup of the supercilious, womanizing detective as he gazed at Lisa’s shapely ass, the big For Sale sign at film’s end – that provoked rollicking belly-laughs from the delighted audience. It served as well to heighten the contrast between the tranquillity of today’s Antigua and the roiling, danger-filled Antigua of yesteryear, when the slavery and brutality of the sugar world ruled the land.
“I wanted,” director Howard Allen explained, “to tell the story of Caribbean folklore and history as simply as possible, without recrimination and retribution.” The post-screening outpouring of applause and congratulations from audience members, men and women who jumped up and declared their pride in his achievements, were proof of his success. By juxtaposing a narrative that was a combination of thriller and supernatural drama, Allen has developed a confident, laconic cinematic style that speaks volumes to his passion and commitment.