Judge Bill Gibron may be coming down fast, but he's indeed miles above you.
Try to Understand…he's a Manson Man.
Todd (Mark Chavez, Necroville) and Jonda (Jillian Parry) have been a couple so long they're starting to question their commitment. She still dotes on him in an aggravating baby voice. He seeks solace with his buddies and a beer. One day, a slutty babe gives Todd the big eye. One alleyway dalliance later, and our hero is meeting up with a "family" of drifters—Luther (Trent Haaga, Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker), Swan (Kurly Tlapoyawa), Pajamas (Sarah Turner), and their ersatz leader Phillip Valentine (Billy Garberina, Feeding the Masses). Seems the clan has come to town to jumpstart the planned social upheaval of their idol (and Phillip's "father") Charles Manson. It's not long before bodies are being butchered, humans treated like hogs by a mindless marauding band of killers. Of course, all Todd can think of is Jonda. He has to save her. It's a literal matter of life, death, and the heart.
Three years ago, Scott Phillips delivered the daunting, uncompromising zombie epic The Stink of Flesh. Half post-apocalyptic living-dead delight, half ultra-sleazoid exploitation experiment, it boded well for the New Mexican's entry into the realm of outsider macabre. Fans anxiously awaited his next move, the follow-up film that would build on Stink's success and place Phillips firmly among his fellow independent auteurs. And then…nothing. Not a thing. While he contributed the occasional script/story for other filmmakers (Wedding Slashers, Blue Sky), he had nothing to say as a director. Until now. Fresh from the arid desert of the Southwest and bristling with a combination of savvy and the same old sh…stuff, Gimme Skelter may actually be more imaginative as a title than an actual film. This isn't to say that Phillips has produced a surefire flop, but this effort definitely lacks the outsized imagination and style of Stink.
The best part of the film is the beginning. In it, Phillips sets up the small-town atmosphere of his location. He gives us intriguing glimpses into the lives of these people, offering small snippets of direct characterization and fascinating opportunities for inference. No one lacks a legitimate level of interest, from the redheaded hooker with the town's only Internet connection to the brawny dad (the one and only original Leatherface—a.k.a. Gunnar Hansen) who just can't accept his adult daughter leaving the nest. Even the hero couple created to hook audience sympathy and attention has a goofy little relationship. But then Phillips fudges with his portrayals, shading his characters in a way that makes us wary and unsettled. Once the new Manson Family is introduced, all bets appear to be off. Soon, it's a pseudo slasher/splatter fest with nothing but violence overriding the nuance. If you buy into the bloodshed, Gimme Skelter will definitely satisfy.
But those who expect more from Phillips will feel slightly underwhelmed. Granted, it may seem unfair to gauge a person's possibilities by one film, but Stink was just that good. Luckily, our director finds a formidable cast to match his run-and-gun massacring. As the (possible) illegitimate spawn of Mr. Spahn Ranch himself, Billy Garberina makes an intriguing bad guy. He's complicated and confused, desperate to recreate his familial legacy while not quite as batty as his proposed Pops. As his henchmen, Trent Haaga and Kurly Tlapoyawa are uniformly excellent. They bring on the badness with just the right amount of ferocity and flair. Toss is a few ladies who aren't afraid to show off their acting "chops," and a nice chemistry between the cast, and Phillips has found a formidable company. The only weak link? Mark Chavez as our hapless hero. He's not really attractive enough to be a leading man, and he sometimes undermines the action with a veiled wimpiness.
Released on DVD by Halo Eight and Burning Paradise Entertainment, the tech specs of Gimme Skelter are a little odd. The transfer appears to be anamorphic, coming in at somewhere around 1.66 or 1.78 to 1. The image is clean, colorful, well-controlled, and overall very professional. For something created on the fly with limited fiscal backing, it looks superb. Similarly, the sound situation is handled with precision. The rock-and-roll backing is brilliant, setting the perfect tone for the film, and the occasional ambient noises really resonate across the basic Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. As for added content, there is an excellent full-length audio commentary by Phillips, a series of engaging video blogs, a group of outtakes, a gag reel, a stills gallery, a music video, and a trailer. Along with a DVD insert containing as essay about the filmmaker and his efforts, Gimme Skelter provides a well-supplemented digital package.
Those looking for gallons of gore may be disappointed by Gimme Skelter's decision to emphasize brutality over bloodletting. Still, Scott Phillips should be celebrated for taking chances, avoiding formulas, and dishing up something unexpected and unsettling every time he steps behind the lens. Phillips may not be able to match the lingering mastery of Stink of Flesh, but Gimme Skelter stands on its own. It's a nasty little independent item. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Halo Eight
• Audio Commentary
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