A serious look at the unique 1993 Ted Raimi serial killer shocker
Any movie that contains a rare leading turn from perennial bit parter Ted Raimi, and that features Ricki Lake and controversial skin flick starlet Traci Lords among its supporting cast has to be special.
Has to be.
So believe me when I tell you that SKINNER (1993) is.
An awesome yet long forgotten footnote in the wave of serial killer chillers instigated by the success of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), SKINNER is the best kept secret of the subgenre’s boom period. Seductively out of step, it’s also something of an anomaly too. Less procedural-based a la SEVEN (1995) or COPYCAT (1995), SKINNER is more an oneiric dissection of a truly twisted mind; a sort of cross between the slice o’ life misery of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) and the candy-coloured surrealism of SUSPIRIA (1977), to which its lurid lighting owes an unmistakable debt. Powerful, vibrant, off-kilter, and beguiling, the film pulls you in the second Raimi’s eponymous psycho drifts into Los Angeles in its dream-tinged opening.
Intercutting his ritualistic splashing of the weirdly crystal clear water of the city’s usually polluted river across his face with shots of him coolly carving up another victim, the disarmingly bookish-looking Dennis SKINNER’s arrival in the City of Angels feels like a sickening inevitability. The L.A. presented by SKINNER’s journeyman director Ivan Nagy is a void; a netherworld populated by the hopeless and the helpless, all of whom are ripe for picking. Its graffiti-strewn alleyways, culverts, and sewer system are the perfect, labyrinthine playground for Raimi’s bloodthirsty predator, and Nagy’s refusal to show any kind of law enforcement until the film’s final five minutes – bar a bumbling security guard – only amplifies the overwhelming sense of desolation he conjures.
“We used to drive to downtown L.A. and scout the dirtiest, sometimes even dangerous locations,” says Michael A. Allowitz, SKINNER’s first assistant director. “At the time there were not a lot non-union A.D.s who were capable of handling ambitious projects, but I was young and gung-ho and clicked with Ivan right away. He didn’t care that we’d be walking around areas surrounded by the homeless or drug addicts. We ended up shooting in a lot of those places to give the film a grimy, dark feeling.”
A tonal bedfellow of Buddy Giovinazzo’s COMBAT SHOCK (1984) and David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997), the elliptic unfolding of SKINNER’s Ed Gein-inspired screenplay furthers such an esteemed comparison. Written by Paul Hart-Wilden (who cut his teeth conceptualising the equally affecting necro-schlocker LIVING DOLL (1990) for trash supremo Dick Randall) all but two pockets of exposition are suggested in the space between scenes. Character-driven, the motivations and subtleties of each of Hart-Wilden’s players are shaded and satisfying. SKINNER himself, for instance, is frighteningly aware and completely at peace with his monstrous perversions. The apparent result of an upbringing surrounded by religion, violence, and death, the pleasure he takes in donning the suits made from the crudely stitched together flesh of his prey oozes from the screen. It certainly produces an unforgettable image:
Stood in front of a corrugated iron shutter and bathed in a quease-inducing green glow, SKINNER gently runs his hands over his gruesome homemade onesie. “Clothing for a divine soul,” he coos, rapt in orgasmic ecstasy as he apes the mannerisms of the hooker he’s torn the dermis from. It’s as arresting and revealing a visual as Buffalo Bill’s pecker tuck in Lambs, and as jaw-dropping to behold as the first immolation in Joseph Ellison’s DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE (1979) – a grisly cult favourite that, along with Bill Lustig’s equally staggering MANIAC (1980), is SKINNER’s closest thematic cousin.
Naturally, SKINNER is Raimi’s show. At once achingly nuanced and goofily over-the-top, Raimi’s bravura performance is as fierce and terrifying as Michael Rooker’s titular Henry and as darkly tragi-comic as Roberts Blossom’s Ezra Cobb in DERANGED (1974) (which, like SKINNER, also takes its cues from the nefarious crimes of Wisconsin wacko Gein). The film’s the perfect showcase for Raimi’s often underused talents, as epitomized by his exquisite delivery of a horrifying yet heartbreaking monologue during SKINNER’s brilliantly repulsive face peeling sequence.
“Ted was great,” agrees Allowitz. “He was very much focused on the character and wanting to do something different.”
Reuniting after John Waters’ ode to juvenile delinquency CRY-BABY (1990), Ricki Lake and Traci Lords are likewise excellent, and Allowitz is quick to praise them as well:
“Ricki was sweet and happy to be part of the project. She actually got the news of her talk show deal while we were in production and her life changed dramatically after that. Traci was keen to do some serious work. She was insistent on being perceived as a serious actress, wanting to legitimize her career and break away from porn.”
Lake, who as Allowitz notes, was but months away of her career-defining talk show at the time of SKINNER’s lensing, offers a shred of warmth as the film’s heart. Sympathetic and engaging as the downtrodden, room-letting housewife Kerry, her attraction to crazy lil’ Dennis carries SKINNER’s elegant handful of softer moments, and it’s to Lake’s absolute credit that you actually want the pair of them to get together despite the misery that surrounds them. B-movie mainstay Lords, meanwhile, is beguilingly stoic as Heidi; a mysterious, revenge hungry prostitute whose soul is as scarred as her body after a lucky escape from Skinny-boy’s twisted clutches (a particularly fascinating touch from a contemporary standpoint: with female-fronted P.T.S.D. shockers currently soaring with critics and audiences, Lords’ arc in SKINNER could very well be an unheralded precursor to the likes of Toni Collette in HEREDITARY (2018) and Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN (2018)).
Fixating on Lords’ every beat, Nagy’s obsessive probing of her ultra-intense Heidi betrays his own dubious personal history, especially so given the character’s vocation and real life namesake (a conscious choice on Nagy’s part, without question – in Hart-Wilden’s original script the character’s called ‘Vicky’). Over twenty years before his death in 2015, Nagy was a key player in the Heidi Fleiss call girl scandal that rocked Hollywood, his toxic relationship with the superstar madam instrumental in the building of her vice empire, which famously counted Charlie Sheen among its A-list clients. Fleiss’ lover, pimp, and drug dealer, the Hungarian photographer turned directorial gun for hire (his other credits include episodes of Starsky & Hutch and the made-for-TV superhero flick Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)) was arrested following SKINNER’s completion in the summer of 1993 for running a prostitution ring of his own; Nagy’s second skirting with the law after being convicted of bookmaking two years earlier. Post Fleiss scandal, Nagy’s mainstream career never recovered and he spent the rest of his professional days churning out adult videos, mostly for MacDaddy Entertainment.
It’s tempting, then, to view SKINNER as a confessional of sorts, the smut, dope, and scuzziness that litter the film’s landscape the artistic manifestation of Nagy’s sordid extracurricular activities. It’s all captured with salacious familiarity anyway, and once you’re aware of its helmer’s background, the bulk of SKINNER’s run time leaves you with the same kind of uneasy feeling you get when you watch JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) knowing Victor Salva’s reprehensible past.
“Ivan was certainly connected to a world I was unfamiliar with. Prostitutes, strippers – not necessarily the most respectable people,” states Allowitz, who’s since gone on to direct himself, working on TV shows such as The Vampire Diaries, The Flash, and the recently rebooted Charmed. “But the actual shooting of the film was mostly a hardworking, low-budget crew doing sixteen hour days just to get it made. As for Heidi Fleiss, I went to Ivan’s one morning to go scouting and he seemed very perturbed. He told me that Heidi drove by his condo and shot at the window in the middle of the night. He showed me the bullet hole! I didn’t actually know who Heidi was and, at that point, neither did the rest of the world…”
Initially earmarked for limited theatrical release by Cannon, SKINNER’s hopes of playing on the big screen were scuppered by the legendary schlock outfit’s slide into bankruptcy. Sitting on the shelf for eighteen months, SKINNER eventually went straight-to-video, hitting shelves Stateside in June 1995 via A-Pix. And by and large, that’s where it’s stayed. SKINNER has never been released in the U.K. – where this writer dwells – and a re-release tease from Gorgon Video in mid-2014 has so far yielded nothing. It was last available in 1997 on a primitive, annoyingly censored DVD from Simitar. Offering only the butchered R-rated cut, Simitar’s shoddy disc clumsily excised the explicit but necessary gore fabricated by splatter icons K.N.B. FX, which completely neuters Nagy’s throat-grabbing edge. Thankfully, an OK-ish rip from A-Pix’s unexpurgated LaserDisc continues to float around on torrent sites and on YouTube. So while I wouldn’t normally advocate such flagrant piracy, it’s the best option there is until someone – anyone – exhumes this gruesome and charismatic gem for the bells and whistles treatment it deserves.
And if rumour has it, that’s going to happen very soon from those magnificent bastards at Severin.
“I still think SKINNER’s a bold concept,” concludes Allowitz. “It should at least be a cult movie with its cast and Ivan’s involvement. I’m not sure myself whether it holds up or not, but here’s a little tidbit you might like though: The very last shot of the shoot was part of the sequence where the truck crashes through a fence. They couldn’t afford to hire a stunt double for Traci, who was meant to be riding shotgun, so I volunteered to double her. I had a goatee back then and I refused to shave it, so when we got close I had to hold my hand over my face in case the camera saw me! It was great; I wore her wig and her big hat, and after we crashed through the fence I jumped out of the truck and yelled “that’s a wrap!””