Artisan // 2001 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // October 10th, 2001
Mama loves her baby.
According to the liner notes in the DVD case, Skeletons in the Closet is the culmination of a ten year effort by writers Wayne and Donna Powers (Deep Blue Sea, Valentine) to bring their story of psychological torment and serial killings to the screen. Finally, after years of battles with various studios and filmmakers, the duo were able to get financing to make their movie, with Wayne directing and with complete control over the entire production. The result is a beautifully shot but only moderately interesting attempt at a psychological thriller.
Will Reed (Treat Williams -- Things to do in Denver when You're Dead, The Deep End of the Ocean) lives in a quiet town in New Hampshire with his son Seth (Jonathan Jackson -- Crystal Clear, The Deep End of the Ocean). He is a successful salesman for a manufacturing company, and has a budding new romance with Tina Conway (Linda Hamilton -- The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), a lovely co-worker. On the surface, everything about Will's life looks fine. However, Will is troubled by a past he keeps carefully buried, and by his son's increasingly erratic behavior.
When coincidences from a series of murders start to point to Seth as a suspect, Will becomes increasingly erratic himself. His past and its burdens on himself and Seth weighs on him, driving him almost mad in the process. Finally, the pressures within Will and within Seth explode in a climactic confrontation, where the truth is revealed.
The greatest strength in the movie comes from the acting performances of Treat Williams and Jonathan Jackson as the troubled father and disturbed son. Williams is particularly convincing as a guy trying desperately to maintain a veneer of normalcy despite his past and his suspicions about his son. He succeeds for a while, but eventually his internal pressures take their toll on his life and his relationship with Tina. As the story progresses we see him fall into paranoia and fear of his own son. Williams does a very good job of making Will's torment seem real.
For his part, Jonathan Jackson turns in an effectively creepy performance as Seth, who may or may not be insane and/or a serial killer. Jackson creates a character who might be insane, or might just be having a joke at the expense of those around him. He alternates, sometimes with frightening speed, between youthful rebellion and childlike vulnerability. He has a surprising range for an actor his age, and deals well with the demands of this script.
Skeletons in the Closet comes to us by way of Artisan Home Entertainment. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen, in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture quality is outstanding, probably owing to its origins on digital video as well as an outstanding transfer. The picture is sharp and clear, with good color saturation. For example, there is a scene at the beginning of the movie that features a burning house. The fire is vivid and realistic, and stands out beautifully against the night sky. The video presentation is mostly free of digital artifacts and other blemishes, with the exception of one darker scene fairly early on in the movie. However, as Wayne and Donna Powers reveal in their commentary track, this seems to be a problem in shooting, with the crew rushing to complete a shot without adequate lighting setup.
Audio is available in two flavors, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. The Dolby 5.1 track sounds good, with a lot of surround effects; for reference, check the opening house fire scene I mentioned above. In fact, there are places in the movie where the front and rear surround channels are a little too overpowering, so that the center channel is completely lost and has no fixed placement. The result is surprisingly disorienting.
In the special features department we have a theatrical trailer, cast and crew information, production notes, and a commentary track from the Powers duo. The trailer is a "red-band" R-rated trailer; as near as I can tell, someone probably thought it was just a hair too violent to show in front of, say, Shrek. The trailer is actually quite well done, conveying the tension and mystery of the movie without giving everything away. The cast and crew information is very well done and includes extensive biographical and filmographical information for five actors and six behind-the-scenes types, including Wayne and Donna Powers. If cast and crew information is to be included, this is how it should be done. The production notes as well are nicely done and quite lengthy; this is one of the rare cases where such notes are a worthwhile addition to a DVD.
I found the commentary track from Wayne and Donna Powers to be very interesting. They cover all the bases, from the process they used to make their digital footage look like film to lighting techniques and equipment to Steadicam shots. They also take care to explain what each overall scene is trying to say, and the role it plays in the narrative. They also give some good insight into their editing choices and various other parts of the creative process. They prove once again that commentary tracks from small, independent filmmakers often convey far more interesting and useful information than commentaries from Hollywood bigshots.
Finally, I also discovered an Easter egg on this disc. Hidden on the Cast and Crew menu page is an icon that will take you to extended versions of two scenes that were trimmed for running time. Both of these scenes look terrible, with very poor video quality, but they are nice to have and were a treat to find. Both scenes run with commentary from the Powers filmmaking duo.
It was nice to find those unexpected deleted scenes, because they helped to make up for some supplementary material that was promised but is nowhere to be found. In the liner notes inside the DVD case we are told that the short film The Taming Power of the Small is on the DVD. Wayne and Donna Powers made this film, also starring Treat Williams, to convince studio execs to let them make Skeletons in the Closet. Also, in the commentary track, the pair mentions that the Skeletons in the Closet screenplay will be on the DVD for viewers to print out and read; it is nowhere to be found.
However, the problems with Skeletons in the Closet go far beyond a few missing pieces of supplementary material. Despite lots of creepy atmosphere, it never really delivers as a thriller. Sure, Williams and Jackson do great work in developing tension and creating characters that will give you chills, but the story itself comes across as cheap and uninvolving. There really are no surprises or twists beyond a few perfunctory attempts to throw us off the track; the plot is really a straight line from beginning to end, and just when one thinks it might get interesting, our earlier assumptions are confirmed. To make matters worse, there are a few details thrown in at the end of the movie that will leave audiences scratching their heads. I've watched the film at least twice, and I still can't figure out the significance of the location where the climax takes place. Also, I've watched enough crime shows on the Discovery channel to know that serial killers have a very definite M.O., and that they don't suddenly add in twists like cannibalism just to make things more interesting in the last 10 minutes of an indie flick.
Interesting characters, good acting, weak plot. Skeletons in the Closet isn't terrible, but it could have been so much better. Maybe ol' Wayne and Donna should have spent some of the last ten years polishing their script, rather than expending all their energies trying to get this disappointing version of their movie made.
Missing opportunities like Skeletons in the Closet does surely constitutes criminal negligence. It's not a serious offense, but it is a pity.
Artisan has done a nice job with this DVD, but I am a little puzzled by the absence of features that we are told are on the disc. Maybe I just couldn't find them, but I tried everything I could think of and had no luck. I find them guilty of perjury, and sentence them to time served.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2001 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Wayne and Donna Powers Commentary
* Cast and Crew Information
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Extended Scenes with Commentary Easter Egg