When someone mentions the name Skinner there is two things that jump into most people’s mind: the eternal mama’s boy and principal of Springfield elementary Seymour Skinner of The Simpsons or Mitch Pileggi’s portrayal of FBI assistant director Walter Skinner in The X-Files. For very few people, even amongst genre fans, does this name summon memories of a 90’s slasher. It was one of those unfortunate films that was made and released with very little fanfare and soon found its way to bargain bin VHS shelves, where it remained with all the other curious low budget titles, quickly to be forgotten by most. Even I, a life-long genre fan, can’t remember ever seeing or ever really hearing about it until now, although after looking into the subject a bit more deeply I do recall one of the original VHS covers as part of the horror selection of my favourite video rental store (but as it wasn’t supernatural horror, I never ended up renting it). This seems to be the case with most people’s memory of Skinner; they either vaguely remember it being part of the video rental scene/bargain basket offerings in a video store or seeing a hacked-up version with terrible picture quality either on late night TV or indeed VHS. Over the years it had been re-released on DVD and even on LaserDisc, but by all accounts, both releases were such appalling quality that they hardly did the film any favours. Either way Skinner has never really been one of those films that made a massive impact on people and for years it seemed that’s the way it would remain. Then sometime in 2011 the film’s script writer Paul Hart-Wilden received an email inquiring as to whom the film currently belongs, as they wanted to find out about distribution rights. Realising that not only did he not know the answer to that question, but no one else might either and the film could quite possibly no longer even exist, Hart-Wilden embarked in somewhat epic quest of finding the original 35mm copy in order to preserve this little snippet of slasher history for the future generations. And this is what we of course have here; a result of a nearly ten-year search for a film that was thought to be lost forever, all lovingly restored for this brand-new DVD/Blu-ray release by 101 Films.
The story follows a mild-mannered young man called Dennis Skinner (Ted Raimi) who has just arrived in a new town with nothing more than a suitcase and a positive go-getting attitude. He soon finds a room to rent by a lovely local couple Kerry and Geoff Tate (Ricki Lake and David Warshofsky) and settles into his new home. But not all is as it seems; Kerry and Geoff are far from being a dream team, with Geoff spending a sizable amount of time on the road and, quite frankly, treating his wife like shit. Meanwhile, their new, seemingly pleasant tenant has a nasty habit of roaming the streets in search of prostitutes to kill and skin, and is in turn followed by an ex-victim Heidi (Traci Lords) with vengeance in mind.
All in all, the film contains all the elements for what should be a pretty decent slasher; a charming yet somewhat creepy antagonist, a possible love interest (Lake) who may or may not be able to help our troubled killer to change his murderous ways and as a bit of a twist to the story, the one that got away that has now become a hunter herself. However, there is obviously a reason why Skinner was so quickly forgotten when it first came out and unfortunately it wasn’t because of bad timing or some other unlucky coincidence that sometimes happens when films are released. It’s because Skinner simply isn’t a very good. God knows it tries very hard and takes an advantage of every genre cliché of its time, but sadly never really delivers in any front. The pacing is off, and the first half of the film seems to drag on for unfeasibly long time before anything really starts to happen and when it finally does, it is somewhat of an anti-climax. The different story elements of Skinner’s criminal life, his could-be relationship with Kerry and the vengeful ex-victim’s quest for revenge are never tied in together in a cohesive manner and end up feeling like three separate stories that never really go anywhere. The suspense that one would expect from a story like this is also pretty non-existent. Maybe it just me but I did find it very hard to take Raimi seriously as a serial killer. A harmless, dorky yet slightly creepy tenant, sure, but in anyway a menacing figure, no. The most horrifying moment in the whole film is a moment when Skinner chases a young woman around wearing a skin suit made out of one of his previous victims, but not for the reasons you would think; it is not his unusually gory choice of clothing that makes the scene horrific, but the incredibly racist stuff that is coming out of his mouth. It is so astonishingly inappropriate that it will make your skin crawl. In fact, both Raimi and Hart-Wilden comment on the scene on their respective interviews; Raimi about how uncomfortable he felt performing it and Hart-Wilden on the fact that that particular scene was NOT in his original script and even though rest of it may contain unsavoury material of different kind, it was not something he himself would have been comfortable writing.
The acting in general is…well it’s interesting. Let’s for a moment consider the cast here: Ted Raimi a seasoned genre actor even at the time of Skinner, Lake and Lords both respectively no strangers to a film set and fresh off their wonderful performances in John Waters’ Cry Baby (1990). Put these names together and one should hope to get something fairly magical as a result. Somehow what you get is a bunch of very wooden acting from all the parties, and when I say all I mean all, not just these three. The dialogue all throughout the film is delivered in a way that makes you question whether any of these people have actually ever heard a genuine human interaction. There’s just nothing even remotely natural about it. Whether this is due to the actors themselves or the director, it’s hard to say. According to Raimi, the director Ivan Nagy was not an overly hands on with his job and other than making sure that the over all setting of the scene was the way he wanted, he left the actors do they jobs as they saw fit, making me lean towards the latter. Out of the three main stars, Lake’s performance is perhaps the worst, delivering all the charm of a box of hair. Lords doesn’t fair much better, but it must be mentioned that she isn’t really offered many chances for any kind of real acting here. As a character Heidi is way underused throughout the film and her dialogue mainly consists of repeating the same three sentences over and over again. Raimi does a relatively decent job compared to the other two, but as stated before, I did find it difficult to find him in any way threatening.
But let’s not lose perspective here. After all we are talking about a sleazy low budget slasher from the early 1990’s, not a genre defining masterpiece, and as such Skinner has it’s charms. While I just spent a couple of hundred words trashing the performances of pretty much all the actors, I also have to admit that strangely clunky acting with all the bizarrely delivered dialogue is somewhat endearing in the so-bad-that-it’s-good kind of way. The special effects (executed by KNB EFX Group), while obviously dated, are still pretty decent quality and the film takes its sweet time revelling in what Dennis Skinner does best, with quite a lengthy sequence dedicated to him skinning one of his victims. The 4K restoration truly comes to its own in the film’s suspense and kill scenes, which somewhat surprisingly seem to mimic the works of Italian masters like Bava or Argento with their vibrant use of lights. The aforementioned skinning scene is especially lovely watch with it’s vivid use of purple and green, but a similar use of complementary tones is present all throughout the film and do manage ad a certain je ne sais quoi to what could otherwise be quite humdrum gore.
Besides the delightful 4K restoration the 101 Films’ special edition release offers few other goodies as well, including A Touch of Scandal – Interview with Director Ivan Nagy, Under His Skin – Interview with Ted Raimi, Bargain Bin VHS For A Buck- Interview with Paul Hart-Wilden and Cutting Skinner- Interview with Editor Jeremy Kasten. Out of the four interviews with Raimi and Hart-Wilden are perhaps the most interesting ones and give a nice bit of insight into the “making of” process. It would have been interesting to see what Lake and/or Lords would have had to say about their time on this set, but unfortunately you can’t have it all. There’s also a good 14 minutes or so of out-takes and extended takes of the flaying sequence as well as a trailer. Furthermore, this double DVD/Blu-ray release comes with a newly added limited-edition booklet Finding Skinner by Hart Wilden, recounting the torturous tale of finding Skinner’s long-lost master and makes for a very interesting read indeed.
So, if you (like many others) have a hazy recollection of this weird little slasher from somewhere in your misspent youth and have been keen to renew your acquaintance, now is your chance. Equally, if you never even heard of Skinner, but have a soft spot for slightly seedy 90’s slashers, this title is unlikely to disappoint. As Ted Raimi states in his interview, “This is not a triumph of cinema, but it is an interesting little slasher film”.