Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review #10: Skins (Pieles) (2017)

Directed by Eduardo Casanova

By Amy M. Vaughn

29 October 2020

Skins is not a horror movie. Not really. The Spanish film is about people who are radically differently bodied, although not always in the ways we’ve been talking about in this series of reviews. Some do possess more traditional types of uniqueness; for instance, there are a couple of little people. (Has every movie in this series had a little person?) Then there are examples of other real-life disorders and deformities, like the man who is covered with burn scars and the woman with a large tumor pulling down one side of her face. There is a young man with Body Integrity Identity Disorder, who does not recognize his legs as his own and wants them removed so he can become a merman. And the cast goes even further afield with a woman who has no eyes or eye sockets, just skin grown over where they “ought” to be, and finally a woman whose ass is on her face; because her digestive system is inverted, her cheeks are plump like a butt and her mouth is an anus.

So, no, Skins isn’t a horror movie, but it may “freak” some people out.

The stories of all of these characters illustrate themes like self-hatred and -acceptance, being misunderstood and alone, and being the object of adoration and fetishes. Their storylines cross and interweave, and even the heaviest is told with a light hand, provoking empathy rather than sympathy. (Even for buttface girl. Maybe especially for buttface girl.) This is an important distinction. Skins is a weird movie. It starts out weird and runs with it, but still manages to present every character as human first and unique second, driving home that what we have in common far outweighs what makes us different. Hence we are provoked to empathy—feeling with them—rather than to sympathy—the outsider’s response of feeling for them, giving them pity.

Why include buttface girl at all? Why not a differently bodied person who does exists, who could have been cast, who wouldn’t be so simultaneously silly and hard to look at? I can’t speak for Casanova, who both wrote and directed this as his debut feature length film, but for me, buttface girl takes the act of physical transgression to another level. The other disabilities and deformities seem much less severe next to her. It’s all relative. And then there’s the opportunity she affords for John Waters-esque humor and an ending that was conceivably far more shocking in predominantly Catholic Spain and before “eating ass” had become at least somewhat culturally accepted.

Diamonds for eyes

I loved Skins. After my first viewing I had no doubt that I would watch it again. It’s fascinating, weird, garish, and heartfelt. There’s enough symbolism to be meaningful but not so much as to be esoteric. Skins is a movie about freak-love—the lack of it, the pathology of it, the victims of it, and the recipients of it. For most of the film, the normal people are either exploiting the differently bodied or failing miserably at trying to love them.

The weirdest thing about Skins might be that, for all of the sadness and alienation and heartbreak, almost everyone gets a happy ending. In fact, the ending is so upbeat, it’s kind of cheesy, but it would take a hard heart indeed to begrudge these freaks their happiness.

Skins has its faults. The large cast and multitude of storylines already limits the depth to which any one plotline can go, and the happy endings, for those who get them, come on too quickly to feel genuine. So, while this may not be the perfect ensemble “freak” movie with which to bookend this series (not least because it has nothing to do with sideshows), I believe it belongs in the discussion as a commentary on how the differently bodied still struggle for acceptance in a world that may be post-freakshow but is still simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by their extraordinary forms.

4 out of 5 Eye Diamonds

Available on Netflix.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

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