Who hasn’t thought about getting a tattoo before? The idea of permanently inking something on your body is tempting to some and revolting to others. Some may find the act horrific, while others may find it beautiful. Those opposing points of view make Kevin Chicken’s feature directorial debut, Perfect Skin, all the more fascinating for viewers as it delves into the potential horrors of body modification while simultaneously offering an allegorical take on the rape-revenge narrative.
After being kicked out of her London apartment, Polish immigrant Katia (Natalia Kostrzewa, The Cured) finds a new roommate in Lucy (Jo Woodcock). The two bond and quickly become friends. One day, Lucy takes Katia to visit a local tattoo artist named Bob (Richard Brake, 31, Game of Thrones). Upon meeting Katia, Bob comments on her perfect skin, which is unmarked by tattoos and piercings. Unbeknownst to the girls, Bob’s life isn’t as happy as his calm demeanor would make it seem. After being diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, a disease that will end his career, Bob’s marriage became strained and eventually fell apart. With the clock ticking, Bob has become obsessed with creating one final masterpiece before his body gives in to the disease. When Lucy is called back home to care for her ailing mother, Bob takes advantage of Katia’s solitude and kidnaps her, locking her in a jail cell under his tattoo shop (why he has a jail cell under his tattoo shop is anyone’s guess). Katia is then subjected to Bob’s obsession as he goes to work on her blank canvas of a body.
As Bob, Brake is absolutely terrifying, making it clear that his standout performance in Rob Zombie’s 31 wasn’t a fluke. Brake does a phenomenal job conveying Bob’s thoughts through even the subtlest of facial expressions, seamlessly moving from serenity to a fit of rage in a matter of seconds. Bob treats Katia with the utmost respect, proudly proclaiming “I just want you to be happy here. That’s all” or “I just want you to be clean. That’s all,” but the second his masterpiece is in danger of not being finished he becomes a monster. There is a fine line between being a perfect gentleman and an unhinged, albeit subdued, psychopath, and Brake walks it perfectly.
It’s a shame that the script, co-written by Chicken and Dusan Tolmac, doesn’t give us more insight into his psyche. It introduces his unhappy marriage and his medical affliction, but only gives us surface-level reasons for his obsession. Some would argue that you don’t need anything more than one scene with his wife and a few shots of his shaking hands, but one wishes that Chicken and Tolmac had dived a little deeper into what makes Bob tick. The film (sort of) tells us why Bob snapped, but it doesn’t show us.
Kostrzewa displays equal parts vulnerability and strength as Katia, with the strength gradually taking over as she is subjected to more of Bob’s handiwork. She doesn’t get too many layers to play other than acting scared, but she does what she can with the role. Woodcock turns in a wonderfully feisty performance as Lucy. While the role is fairly underwritten, existing solely to add to the film’s body count, Woodcock makes the character a likable spitfire.
Though not gory, Perfect Skin boasts several cringe-inducing sequences of body modification. Cinematographer Jim Marks captures Katia’s torture with extreme close-ups of needles (both from a tattoo gun and the regular piercing variety) puncturing her skin, making the reality of her situation all the more horrifying. It’s enough to make you turn away from the screen (or at least consider never getting a tattoo). This is not the body horror you’re used to. Whereas body horror like David Cronenberg’s was more of the fantastical sort with chest vaginas and humanoid fly creatures, Chicken’s body horror is very, very real. The horror lies not in what is being done to Katia’s body (as people do this sort of thing all the time), but rather that it is being done without her consent.
It’s impossible to talk about the torture that Bob submits Katia to without comparing it to rape. Though there is nothing sexual between Bob and Katia, she is being penetrated nonetheless. It wouldn’t be wrong to classify Perfect Skin as a rape-revenge film, although in this instance we must use the term’s second definition rather than its sexual counterpart: an outrageous violation. Katia’s body is repeatedly violated by Bob for the majority of the film’s runtime, with each new addition to her body making her more and more unrecognizable. She metamorphosizes from a lonely immigrant girl into Bob’s ghastly (beautiful?) creation. This metamorphosis bleeds over into Katia herself, as the Katia at the beginning of the film is not the same Katia at the end of it. Chicken gets the horror right, but something gets lost in translation on a personal level with Katia. We see her being tortured. We know she is in pain. We just don’t get anything to clue us in to who Katia is other than her suffering.
Making the most of what had to have been a limited budget, Chicken has crafted a fascinating character study of a man driven solely by his obsession. While one wishes that the script had a little more depth to it, it doesn’t prevent Perfect Skin from being an effective piece of filmmaking. The actresses are both solid, but Brake is the MVP, more than justifying a watch when Perfect Skin finally sees a release.
Perfect Skin had its world premiere at the 2018 London FrightFest Film Festival. No release date has been set.