Monday, October 29, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 29: Skinner

October 29th: Skinner (1995)

In one of his few starring roles, Ted Raimi plays the eponymous Dennis Skinner, the mild-mannered serial killer. We join a cross-country spree in process as Skinner boards at the home of Geoff (David Warshofsky) and Kerry Tate (Ricky Lake). Viewers may note the plot of Skinner is similar to that of contemporary sleeper The Minus Man. Geoff is a trucker constantly on the road, so Kerry is happy to have the company. Though they needed the money, Kerry’s real motivation for posting the room ad is to find companionship. Callous Geoff dislikes Skinner, but isn’t around often enough to really care. Skinner recognizes Kerry’s loneliness, and exploits it as part of a cruel game. While Skinner only uses Kerry to amuse himself, at night he stalks the streets with his duffel bag full of “tools,” scouting unsuspecting prostitutes. To pay the rent Skinner takes a job as janitor at a nearby factory.

Ted Raimi is perfectly cast. Skinner himself is nearly a cipher, his personality largely unknown. What we do know about his past is vague at best; he drifts comfortably, his crimes unnoticed because of not only his preferred targets but also his unassuming demeanor. His politeness and quirky sense are humor are totally affected however, a strategic act. Whoever the “real” Dennis Skinner is, the audience never knows. Following Skinner is Traci Lords as Heidi, a prostitute who survived Skinner’s blade. Heidi’s skin is disfigured, horribly scarred, and she hides half her face behind a blonde wig. Lords’ performance is typically bad here, her vocal and physical handicaps poorly played; she can’t even limp convincingly. Heidi stays in a rundown hotel near the Tate home, spied on by creep hotel owner Eddie (Richard Schiff, an actor this film is lucky to have in a supporting role).

The camera, music and pacing of Skinner remind of Cemetery Man, and like that film, Skinner revels in moments of awkwardness. The dialog in Skinner has an eerie, subtle layer of echo. The score--by third-wave industrial band Contagion--is dated but nevertheless effective. Stylistically this film is better than it ought to be, considering that besides Skinner, director Ivan Nagy has only directed soft-core porn and bad television. Skinner almost looks like a Skinemax movie sometimes, except that there’s no sex, only bad vibes. Considering the script (by Paul Hart-Wilden), it’s ironic that Ivan Nagy dated Heidi Fleiss, and was suspected of being a former pimp himself. Wow!

The awkwardness of Skinner comes mainly from its characters and their interactions. This has something to do with the three principle performers. Lake, Raimi and Lords were perhaps chosen for that very reason. Its strange to see three character actors known for supporting roles play leads. Scenes concerning Skinner and Kerry Tate’s relationship are especially unsettling. Its hard to believe that Kerry is in danger around Skinner, as Raimi is so convincingly harmless. Of course, she is in danger. Skinner eventually seduces Kerry, and plans her murder as a sort of step-up from his usual prey.

Most of the violence here is elliptical, or at least happens off-screen. Skinner will lead a woman into an alley, a quick flash of violence will be seen, and then Skinner will emerge from the alley alone. While the torture and violence is left to the viewer’s imagination, Skinner contains much gore, courtesy of KNB EFX Group. In one disturbing sequence, Skinner is harassed by his coworkers at the factory. An ex-boxer named Earl (Dewayne Williams) slams Skinner against a locker, calling him a “loon.” In the next scene we see Skinner exiting the building at night, wearing Earl’s skin. Skinner begins to mock Earl, punching the air and repeating his catch-phrase: “I could’a’ knocked Tyson out!”

(Spoilers here)

The factory is host to the film’s final sequence, the showdown between Heidi and Skinner. Geoff leads Heidi to the factory, where Skinner is holding Kerry hostage. Ineffectual because of her bum leg, Heidi is overpowered by Skinner. Hearing the commotion, an ancient night-watchman (Time Winters) feebly fires his gun in dumb desperation, fatally wounding Heidi and nearly hitting Kerry. He only manages to shoot Skinner in the leg. In the film’s final, frightening moment, Skinner—his arm around the dying Heidi—chuckles, “They love people like me.” He may be referring to the media, to his unsuspecting victims, or just to people in general. The construct he hides behind enables his brutal lifestyle; Skinner is conscious of this, and seems to find it hilarious. While this would have been a fine ending, Skinner perplexes with its final line (this is becoming an October Ordeal trend): “Doesn’t it just make you wanna scream, doesn’t it make you wanna rip a good one out!?” With this, Heidi screams her last scream and Skinner fades to credits.

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