Skinned Deep (2004)

AUGUST 17, 2021


Gun to my head I would have guessed that Skinned Deep was an early '90s movie more or less produced for the VHS market, something that would have gotten coverage in Fangoria during those pre-Scream years where big screen horror was so intermittent that the mag had to noticeably step up its coverage of smaller films (the '80s rarely afforded them the opportunity). But nope, it was actually released in 2004 (by Fangoria, natch) and started shooting in 2000, long after the heyday of both the film's subject matter (Texas Chainsaw-esque demented backwoods killers) and the home video market it was chasing. DVD had taken over by then, as had the video chains over the mom and pop types, leaving these sort of things in the dust as Blockbuster would rather stock another copy of The Ring than devote shelf space to more than one copy of something like this.

No, this was clearly just a labor of love from writer/director Gabe Bartalos, making his debut as a director after years of makeup and FX work. His resume dates back to the mid '80s, and I swear I've seen him on at least a dozen DVD/Blu bonus features over the years thanks to his work on Frank Henenlotter films and Charles Band productions. Needless to say I was curious what kind of film he'd make on his own, and I was happy to discover it wasn't just a bland slasher that gave him an excuse to show off his FX skills every ten minutes, but instead offered a singular vision of a filmmaker who cared about every frame in the film, regardless of whether or not it had anything that would excite gorehounds.

The basic story is nothing new; a family of four is traveling, their car gets a flat, and the nearest place for help is run by murderous weirdos. But there's something "off" about the proceedings that should tell even the most jaded viewer (including me, at first) that this isn't going to be a run of the mill affair. The actors (heroes and villains alike) are all very bizarre and exaggerated, as if they stepped out of a David Lynch music video, and when the killing starts, Bartalos saves the most gruesome death for the young boy of the family, i.e. something most wouldn't dare to do at all. After everyone else in the family is dispatched, the focus falls squarely on the teen daughter, who catches the fancy of Brian aka Brain, so named because... well, he has a giant brain on his head.

Yes, this enters into sci-fi territory, as our villains have seemingly been created by, er, The Creator, a mysterious puppet master we meet later. Brain/Brian is seemingly sympathetic and longs to run naked through Times Square (a vision we see for real; Bartalos obviously didn't have permits and just shot the sequence guerilla style - the actor was subsequently arrested, but they got the shot!). His "brothers" are the more murdery ones, one is called Plates after the sharpened dinnerware he uses as weapons, and the other is the Surgeon General, the machine-mouthed guy on the cover. A few actors played him based on availability and what not (it was a long production, as noted) but Plates is played by Warwick Davis (Bartalos did his makeup for all of the Leprechauns), painted to look like an albino and dropping off kilter line readings into most of his scenes.

Heroine Tina runs afoul of them and other baddies over the course of the film's (slightly overlong) 97 minutes, but they take out others on occasion, like a group of elderly bikers who seek revenge after one of their number is killed trying to help the girl. Bartalos is seemingly well aware that this sort of movie can feel "samey" to the astute horror fans who will undoubtedly make up the majority of his audience (there is zero attempt at making this thing mainstream friendly, I assure you), so he keeps things forever lively by keeping Tina on the run, allowing the production designer enough of a showcase for an entire demo reel. When Tina ends up in a room that is covered ceiling to floor in newspaper, you truly get the sense of how much work went into the movie to keep it engaging. He could have thrown the girl in a typical bland basement room with a few pipes in the background, but instead you get this strange, claustrophobic visual that had to have taken dozens of man hours to put together.

It's that attention to detail that makes the film stand out where it could have been another 90 minute chase flick. Again, yeah, it could have been tightened in spots, and you need to forgive some wonky ADR and the like, but there is almost never a moment in the film where you can't pause it and say "Look at how much work they put into creating this scene", between the complicated makeup (Brain's took four hours to apply, and he's in it quite a bit), crazy set designs, and yes, the gore, which is mostly practical but Bartalos also knew better than to institute a ban on CGI. Any good FX artist knows that utilizing the best of both worlds is the way to get the most ideal results, and so some sneaks in here and there, and only a fool would complain about it.

Severin's blu has two featurettes, one a vintage piece from (I assume) the first DVD release back then, and a new retrospective where Bartalos and a few others answer fan questions. There's also a commentary track with pretty much the same people as the later retrospective, which is kind of annoyingly out of sync with the movie so there are times where Bartalos is saying "OK this shot coming up right..... HERE was (tech talk)" but from context we can tell he is referring to something we saw 15 seconds earlier. But otherwise it's chockfull of production info and anecdotes, with occasional ball-busting and self deprecation, i.e. an ideal track for both fans of the film and also for detractors who assume things like this can just be slapped together in a weekend. Even if you're not down with all of the movie's choices, no one can deny that it is the result of a hard working filmmaker that wanted to put his own spin on classic horror movie material, one who made sure to put every dollar of his (not large!) budget on the screen instead of blowing half of it on a pointless cameo by someone who didn't happen to have a horror convention on his schedule that weekend.

It's sad though, because I kept having the "They don't make em like this anymore" thought for a movie that was only a couple years old when I started doing Horror Movie A Day. I mean yeah it's depressing to think I'm that much older, but in general the idea of anyone doing this sort of thing (on film no less, though there are a handful of well-matched digital shots) is practically unthinkable nowadays. Indie horror exists of course, but the things that find distribution are mostly A24 lite affairs, with gonzo stuff like this being "underground" fare that probably costs less than I spend on electricity every year. It's rare I come across anything that the filmmaker spent years of their life tinkering with to get just the way they liked it, shooting when they could instead of shitting it out over a week and trying to salvage something from what they shot (on their iPhone). Oh, and doing it before he could ask people on the internet to pay for it, reducing their own interest in making sure it got done right. I'm sure those sort of productions still exist, but they don't come across my desk as much as I'd like. Hopefully that'll change.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. No review on 'The Night House'? I was looking forward to that...


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