The early ’90s were an interesting time for horror; theatrical distribution was wanting, and what films were made mostly found themselves victims of the direct-to-video route. I shouldn’t say victims; they were still made for those cruising the video store aisles in need of the latest adrenaline fix of terror. One film of the era that received extra attention was Skinner (1993), but not necessarily due to content; no, it turns out that director Ivan Nagy was at the time the boyfriend of the notorious Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss. Had audiences paid closer attention to the film than the gossip rags, they would have been privy to a somewhat disjointed yet interesting flick. Thanks to Severin Films, everyone has a chance to see what all the fuss is about with another stellar Blu-ray release.
Meet Dennis Skinner (Ted Raimi – Deadwax); your average, run-of-the-mill nice guy who just happens to walk everywhere with a kit bag full of sawing implements, as one will do when you’re a serial killer and your last name is Skinner. A janitor by trade, Dennis takes a room for rent at the home of Kerry (Ricki Lake – Serial Mom) and Geoff (David Warshofsky – There Will Be Blood) Tate, a couple in a suffering marriage. Geoff is immediately put off by Dennis’ overbearing cheeriness, while Kerry becomes quite fond of him as she deals with the growing chasm between herself and her husband. Of course, they know nothing of Dennis’ after dark proclivities, as he roams the streets and picks up prostitutes to not only kill them, but yes, skin them as well. (His dad was a mortician, and *checks notes* made him watch as he prepared his mother for burial. Yep, that’ll do it.)
There is one person however who does know what Dennis is up to: the one that got away, Heidi (Traci Lords – Cry-Baby). And I don’t mean a lost love; Heidi survived Dennis’ wrath, and has a grizzled left side of her body and a heroin habit to prove it. As Dennis’ feelings for Kerry intensify, Heidi closes in on her chance for revenge against the filleting fiend. Can she stop him before he skins again?
I’ll be completely honest: I still think the first half of the ’90s wasn’t particularly strong for horror; first, a lot less were being made, and as I’ve said, those were mostly lost on shelves already crowded with releases. Even Fangoria had trouble finding suitable fare to put on their covers; it was just quieter until Scream’s success filled the coiffeurs with profitable blood and studios re-invested in the genre wholeheartedly.
Which is to say this: as far as early ’90s horror goes, Skinner isn’t half bad. It may sound like faint praise, but I believe that every film should be viewed within the context of its time, and how it plays today. When it was first released, Skinner was shorn of its gory extremes, which frankly would have helped it then as it certainly does now, happily re-instated in Severin’s uncut restoration of the film. And in our age of reassessment, it is important to view films as they were meant to be seen.
One of the pluses of the film is the look; Skinner benefits from a Bava barrage of cool blues and fiery reds that move away from the blander choices of the era and help the film pop visually. The neo-noir feel is definitely heightened by Lords’ appearance, which puts her closer to femme fatale than avenger. As for those sought after (and re-instated) effects, KNB does a great job, especially with the centerpiece of Dennis doing a full-on flay display of one of his victims. It certainly looks real enough to me.
The biggest problems with Skinner are at the script stage; Paul Hart-Wilden (Alone) aims for a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer understanding of his title character, but that is never really fleshed out beyond one monologue nor through Dennis’ actions, nor the effect of his cause on others. There isn’t enough forward momentum either, with Dennis moving from one victim to the next while Heidi gives chase. The narrative never quite finds its proper footing.
But Raimi’s innate good nature is well-suited to the role, and his cheery Dennis vacillates between madman and someone who needs to be mothered with alarming ease. Even if Dennis’ motivations are primarily surface level, Raimi pulls the audience through the slower sections and keeps you interested in Mr. Skinner’s activities through to the rather anticlimactic ending. For its time, Skinner is an effective enough addition to the canon of the misunderstood.
If you’re still on the fence about taking a dive into Nagy’s particular shot of psychosis, Severin Films' raft of extras will probably tilt you toward the positive. In addition to a new and bright 4K scan, they offer:
Good features all, with perhaps the chats with Nagy and Raimi being the best; the former for a well-rounded look at the filmmaker’s early life and career, and the latter because Raimi is always a delight to listen to. He’s as cheerful as Dennis, but hopefully enjoys less of the same hobbies.
Skinner works as a showcase for some spectacular effects and a rare (and well-deserved) leading role for Raimi; that it doesn’t quite reach its ambitions shouldn’t deter folks from checking it out. After all, there’s a decent flick underneath the epidermis—you just need to do a little flaying.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 4/5