In my original review of Under the Skin, I briefly touched on the ending of the picture, remarking that the alien reveal looked more like a cyber infused Edmund Munch painting, as opposed to the usual Hollywood reveal, particularly thinking of Terminator and Alien respectively. Since then, I have had a chance to revisit the film at home, and I have found that there is much more to the ending than what was initially observed in my first viewing.
The first is how it subverts the usual conceptions of the Slasher genre, with a particular reference to their endings. They almost always end with a prolonged chase sequence between victim and killer, the unmasking of the antagonist and eventually the protagonist gaining the upper hand by injuring their merciless chaser.
In Under the Skin, the alien in the guise of a human being, played by Scarlet Johanson, has been the quote on quote killer throughout the picture and now has turned into the victim. This is because she has grown a semblance of curiosity about her image that results in her believing she is a woman. In essence, because she thinks this now, we see her become quite vulnerable.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg, to what transpires next and how the ending ultimately reverses the formula of the Slasher genre ending. The being gets lost in a damp, cold and depressing forest walk that stretches for miles. She encounters a lone male worker there, and he goes on length about how the place is good for solitude but warns her of getting lost easily.
She then stumbles upon an isolated cabin, which she spends the night sleeping. The next day, she is woken up by that aforementioned lone male worker, who is trying to rape her, she runs away and finds his truck. This next moment with her trying to escape, using a truck evokes a usual horror movie trope, and it is an interesting twist in how it is used here given what has happened in the picture so far.
Upon seeing the lone man coming back towards his truck, she flees it very quickly and goes back to the forest. The lone man catches up with her and this time grabs hold of her and really violently tries to rape her this time. This encounter leaves her feeling disoriented and then we see some rips in her legs, revealing oily black skin underneath, she takes off her whole fleshy disguise and what follows is perhaps the creepiest moment of the film.
The alien, now fully revealed, looks pensively at the face of her disguise and Glazer then cuts to the human reaction to it, with a slow, calculated and slightly shaky camera looking on at a faint outline of the alien figure hidden among the trees. It’s one of the few shots not seen from the alien’s point of view and in this sense there is an inherent, sub-consciousness uneasiness to it, given that the film has made us so used to this point of view that anything else seems so alien, (No pun intended)
Additionally, how this moment twists the slasher genre ending is in the direction of the unmasking. First of all, the reveal comes from the victim, which is the alien and it is not played for the same effect as it is in many of those pictures. In many of those films, it is used as an extra source of jolting and scaring the protagonist and audience.
Here, it’s quite strange as we see the alien just staring at the face of her disguise. The audience has to project what she is feeling, as her eyes have no life or soul to them, we can’t read any emotion from them. Previously, I interpreted her staring as pensive, an action further given validity when the lone male worker returns to burn her, there is no flinching or reaction from the alien, which gives the sequence further weight.
The music that is playing during the scene where the alien is burning is the primal beating drums that appeared earlier when Scarlett’s character was seducing men to their doom. Its use here is very interesting and provides the last few breaths of life that the alien has: I equated the overall musical score representing the landscape of the alien’s mind in my original review.
Elsewhere, the ending evokes the style of two directors that seems quite counter-intuitive when considered in the same breath. The first is Tim Burton. As the ending goes on, it begins to snow and is apparent as the second attempted rape starts to take place. On second viewing, the scene almost did evoke the dark, moody visual scheme that is a staple of his films. His pictures are also like operatic Fairy Tales, with misunderstood freaks representing the protagonist figures.
In this regard, that scene almost plays out like a piece of moralising that Burton would put in his films. To this end, the lesson being if you embrace your female form to the fullest extent, you are prone to being vulnerable to the repercussions of that, in this scene the lusts of men. Although this could also be read as the alien embracing her humanity and becoming more vulnerable, given the skin she chose to wear throughout the film.
I also saw a little bit of David Cronenberg in this ending, regarding his earlier examination of Body Horror, in films such as Videodrome and The Fly. The key line from the latter mentioned 1986 picture, particularly struck me when thinking of this scene “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.”
When thinking about it within this context and situation, the line has resonance because of how the film is structured. You can see that Johanson’s alien character almost did dream she was a human, and how that is now over, going back to my reading of her reaction to seeing her fleshy face disguise.