Our review of Skinned Alive, published August 22nd, 2008, is also available.
It's fun for the whole family…the Manson family, that is.
The Crawldaddy Clan is a traveling band of tanners who find their fine leather wares along the highways and byways of this great nation. No, they don't use road kill as a means of creating designer coats and hats. These pelt purveyors prefer the human hide as their main source of sweatshop stock. They constantly peruse the back roads of the boondocks in hopes of locating a few new fashion victims. During a particularly successful skinning spree, the family van coughs up a cog and needs major re-hauling. The epidermis entrepreneurs end up staying with local mechanic Tom Miles and his insufferable wife Whinnie. Camped out in the couple's basement, they continue on in their soft tissue tailoring. It's up to a drunken, divorced, and disgraced ex-cop next door to put a stop to the slaughter before he and everyone else in this little nowhere town are Skinned Alive.
The best way to describe Skinned Alive is to liken it to an 80 minute tug of wits grudge match between two seasoned horror gore geeks in an old fashioned World Wrestling Federation steel cage death struggle over whose ideals will guide the final version of this cinematic project. In the red corner, weighing in with his respect for the desolate demonic work of Tobe Hooper and George Romero, is producer J. R. Bookwalter. In this seasoned independent filmmaker's mind, a true exercise in terror is one built on a steady diet of atmosphere, dread, and unending evil. One uses violence and excessive bloodletting as a means of intensifying the horror. In the opposite, blue corner, showing his perhaps too well observed admiration for Wes Craven and the Sam Raimi "kitchen sink" school of over-the-top thrills, is director Jon Killough. A firm believer in an "anything is funnier when sad VERY LOUDLY" level of humor and the "excess equals success" anarchic style of cinema, this neophyte knows that to sell outrageous gore and grue effects, you have to mix it into a lawless comedic cacophony. As the match begins, so does the tentative start to Skinned Alive. And the first twenty minutes are good. There is a decent balance between the Sawyers meet the Simpsons quality of Crawldaddy and her band of misfit children with stark terror and bloody brutality. The killings are handled with flair and misdirection, and even with a little character "padding" to make our victims less than models of saintly social grace, we begin to buy into the whole "traveling tannery cannibal crazies" ideal.
And then, the movie/match takes a decidedly weird wide turn into foul-mouthed f-bomb dropping gore slapstick comedy land (for now, let's categorize it as SPLATstick). It starts right before we are introduced to the Miles family: husband Tom, the garage mechanic who will end up working on the marauding maniacs broken down van, and wife Whinnie, who could give Edith Massey lessons in outrageous irritating social behavior. The Crawldaddy clan are arguing in their converted van of hate and slinging every fudge filled epithet they can at each other. Now, the parameters of mixing the word "f*cK" with various plants, animals, foods, and furnishings and then utilizing the clever combinations as a personal crack would seem endless. Well, Skinned Alive definitely tries to find the legal limits, and for five minutes it's funny in a kind of Beavis browbeats Butthead subversive manner. But then the cast's efforts turn token and juvenile. Soon it starts to feel like the slang statements for fornication are substituting for strained peas in a kindergarten food fight. Now add on top of all of this the aforementioned whining Whinnie, a couple of random mutilations and killings, and extended sequences where we witness the filleting of an unfortunate fool, and everything should be horror and humor.
But it's not. Skinned Alive is so indebted to its competing creative mindsets that the graphic butchery ends up being a complete waste of time, having very little impact or power. The constantly referencing of the Three Stooges via the Necronomicon grows aggravating and the inclusion of hinted at incestual sibling sex seems out of place. Eventually, the movie becomes so disjointed you just wish that these cackling killers would shut up and effects slaughter someone onscreen. You can tell that Killough has studied the Raimi oeuvre. This movie is a lot like Crimewave, a forgotten Sam special from 1984, crossed with a lot of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste/Dead Alive. But unlike other directors (such as Kevin Smith or David Mamet), Killough can find no comic complexity or cleverness in his overuse of excessive foul language, nor does he possess Sam the Man's ability to simultaneously terrorize and twitter. None of his outrageous stunts or extremist set pieces builds to a decent comic crescendo. Once the family of flesh felons targets the drunken cop neighbor (our "hero" of sorts) and the final confrontation is in place, Skinned Alive finds its grave groove again and returns to its true legitimate terror target. But it's that manic middle eighth of screaming banshee buffoonery and shrill, senseless shenanigans that almost completely kills the movie.
Yes, the weak humor elements of Skinned Alive turn it into a less than successful exercise in Splatstick. But it's not like the true horror essentials are perfect. After the ambient opening, there is very little of the ethereal qualities producer Bookwalter champions for his films. The gore effects are cheap looking, poorly edited, and underutilized. Even when presented with an obvious fake torso to cleave, there is no desire to simply let go, to let extended shots of faux knife slicing pseudo skin simply work the gorehound audience into a lather of loyalty. This is an extreme minded movie that oddly sells its sensationalism in marginalized mini moments. Skinned Alive's schizoid personality and underdeveloped production ideals keep it from being a grand old gross out time in front of the television. Instead, it's like watching zombie versions of the Three Stooges (during the painful Joe Besser years) swear like sailors on shore leave for the sake of some supposed scary laughs.
The packaging of Skinned Alive offered by Tempe Video is amazing, and highlights what so many of the major market product players get wrong with DVD. Knowing that many people wouldn't recognize this title as anything other than a supposedly derivative direct to video horror release, Tempe pours on the bonus content to offer some insight. But first, it helps glamorize the release on DVD by giving it a full digital video and audio makeover. There is even a section in the extras about the time and effort it took, and the difference is stunning. The image, offered in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, looks brand new. While there are some minor age and stock issues, the majority of the film looks bright, crisp, and bloody colorful. Aurally, an entirely new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track has been created, allowing the use of foley and other ambient sound effects to create immersive and suspenseful scenarios. It's not a multi-channel workout, but it does improve what was surely a poor initial presentation. Additionally, we get more in-depth discussion of the making (and unmaking) of the film than one would expect. The grappling scenario discussed above is indeed a great deal like what happened between producer and director with this film. On the enclosed commentary track, we hear producer Bookwalter's version of events—the troubled shoot, the battle for creative control, the mistakes and misunderstandings. Along with offering insight as to how this ultra-cheap movie was made, sold, and distributed, we get many behind the scenes anecdotes and cautionary tales about life as a true independent filmmaker.
But it's the behind the scenes featurette, entitled Cut to the Bone: Dissecting the Making of Skinned Alive, which is the real eye opener. Using interview footage from most of the actors and crew of Skinned Alive, we get to hear all sides of the story: the original casting; the bringing in of new, noted names (Scott Spiegel…just check his name on the IMDb to see how connected this guy was/is); the battles over tone and temperament; the hirings; the firings; the embarrassment and the final cut. For such a small nothing of a movie, Skinned Alive resulted in one of the biggest battles of and about ego that this reviewer has witnessed. Frankly, the story of who and how this movie got made would be as entertaining and intriguing—maybe more so—than the film that resulted. But that's not all. Tempe has more goodies up their sleeve. They offer a selection of camera, wardrobe, and make-up tests. We get to see some of the actual filming of the movie. There are still galleries and trailers for many more of Tempe's product. And there's even the inclusion of a rare slice of pseudo situational comedy from the Skinned Alive filmmaker's days in local cable access. Unfortunately, Roommates, a non-laugh filled fiasco about brain damaged housemates, makes most homemade coaxial humor look and sound like Woody Allen when compared to this forced, unfocused mess. And yet it helps to paint a complete and far more inviting portrait of this title as we begin to understand the team of talent who brought it to life. While Skinned Alive may only work 50% of the time as a horrific escape into the mind of depravity, the DVD presentation more than compensates for the film's shortcomings. This is a very good, very comprehensive DVD package.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Commentary Track
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