Anyone who has seen Rob Zombie’s 31 will know that the very best thing about it was actor Richard Brake. As ‘Doom-Head’, an incarnation of violent, painful death, Brake’s intense, haunted eyes, gaunt, cavernous cheeks and drawn, craggy skin were an integral part of his authenticity as a performer. His appearance falls somewhere between Iggy Pop and Alex Cox, but most of all he looks like a man who has lived. His weathered, lived-in skin also plays a part in Kevin Chicken’s feature debut Perfect Skin. Brake stars as tattooist Bob Reid – a man who inscribes significant images into the flesh of his paying clients even as his own hands are encoded with the trembling signifiers of early onset Parkinson’s disease, spelling a premature end to his calling. Separated from his wife and two children, and facing the slow, painful loss of everything he values, this softly spoken, smiling American in London cuts an alienated, doomed figure.
Perfect Skin is in fact a tale of more than one migrant. Young Katia Matuszczak (Natalia Kostrzewa) came to London from Poland to work as an au pair, but quit her job, and has just been kicked out of a Polish friend’s apartment. She moves in with another friend (and another migrant), the heavily tattooed Australian Lucy Dalton (Jo Woodcock), and through her meets Bob. Workless, cashless, homeless and fatherless, Katia is adrift and lost, escaping into a hedonistic haze of alcohol and cocaine. Yet Bob, drawn to her untouched skin like an artist to a fresh canvas, can see only potential in Katia – the possibility of crafting his swansong – and so he abducts and imprisons her, determined to execute his deluded designs on her bare flesh before his time and talent run out. For Katia is to be his final masterwork, even if the process destroys both of them.
“You’re strong, Katia. So strong. You can do anything. Anything.” What Bob does to Katia – with ink and needles and hooks and implants – is entirely non-consensual, but he is also, in his own bizarre way, equipping her with the tools to be reborn and to take on the world (including Bob) with renewed power, while arrogating to himself the rôle of surrogate father. Katia’s physical and psychological metamorphosis sees her become the Frankenstein’s monster (chains and all) to Bob’s errant patriarchy. Yet while Perfect Skin might represent ‘torture porn’ set in the same world of body modification and suspension that featured in Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary and Kate Shenton’s documentary On Tender Hooks, it is also an allegory of immigrant experience. For as Katia tries to lay down new roots and forge new identity for herself, we see this young exile in Britain being changed permanently by an environment to which she may never fully assimilate – and where indeed she may, as a foreigner, find herself forever branded, estranged and demonised, whether she likes it or not.
Perfect Skin was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.