Saturday, April 20, 2024

Skinned Alive (1990)

... aka: Escolados vivos

Directed by:
J.R. Bookwalter (uncredited)
Jon Killough

In 1985, Bookwalter began filming his low budget zombie opus The Dead Next Door for his fledgling production company Tempe. Put into context of when it was made and released, the film was quite notable for a variety of reasons. For starters, it was shot entirely on Super 8, which was a film format until-then reserved almost exclusively for amateur home movies and vacation videos. While Dead wasn't the first to do that - Mark Pirro, for instance, had already shot several of his earlier films on Super 8 - it was a much more ambitious undertaking. Taking four years to complete and with an estimated budget of 125,000 dollars, it would later be called "the most expensive Super 8 movie ever made." Around midway through the production, the film also attracted the interest of both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, who were fresh off their success of the second Evil Dead. Raimi (who billed himself as "The Master Cylinder" in the credits) chipped in some money as executive producer while Campbell did some voice-overs and worked on audio. That ended up getting Dead some genre press coverage which then resulted in this small regional movie becoming a minor cult film on home video. That in turn led to a number of other independent horror productions over the next few decades from the same people.

Though (mostly) directed and written by Killough, who'd worked on all of Tempe's previous films, Bookwalter's stamp is all over this one. He produced, directed (both as second unit and in a finishing director capacity), did the music, did the titles and receives credits as camera operator, foley artist, sound effects and sound engineer. He also oversaw the re-edit and remastering of the film in 2002 for its initial DVD release. Most of the actors seen here had appeared in previous Tempe films, and many of them also worked various jobs behind the scenes on this one as well. This is the type of ultra low budget production where most of the folks involved had to wear multiple hats in order to get things done. Even so, this one almost never got done!

Skinned Alive is a Texas Chainsaw-inspired tale detailing the exploits / killing spree of a white trash family of serial killers as they travel around the Ohio countryside. The trio of psychos is led by Crawldaddy (Mary Jackson, and NOT the same actress from The Waltons as most websites currently state), the wheelchair-bound, eye-patch-sporting, beer-guzzling, constantly cackling and cursing matriarch of the clan, who suffers from some gender identity issues (she sometimes prefers to be called "daddy"), endlessly berates her idiot offspring and brags about killing her own mother. Her children are manic, pill-popping Phink (Scott Spiegel - INTRUDER) and man-hating blonde seductress Violet (Susan Rothacker), who share incestuous desires for one another and are every bit as obnoxious as their ma. The family get by operating a traveling tannery out of a black van and murder whoever they stumble across, skin them and make leather goods from their hides.

Having to be in Columbus the following day, their van picks the perfect time to break down in some "shithole redneck town." They offer friendly mechanic Tom Miles (Lester Clark) a thousand bucks if he can fix it ASAP, and he agrees to let these weirdos camp out in their basement for the night in the meantime, where they're constantly annoyed by his chatterbox wife, Whinnie (Barbara Katz-Norrod). In between, they indiscriminately kill whoever they happen to run across while shouting inane dialogue. That's about it as far as plot is concerned.

What this mostly amounts to is an excuse to show off gore fx, with awful, childish "comic" dialogue used to try to paste it all together. The first victim, a hitchhiker (played by the director), is kicked in the face, beaten with a hammer and then shot in the head. An obese guy (Michael Render) stumbles upon the killers after being stranded on the roadside when his "God damn piece of Jap shit" car breaks down. After offering them free tickets to "Wayne Newton's Las Vegas All Nude Revue," he's chased through a cornfield, impaled with a flying machete and shot multiple times. A delivery man (Mike Shea) has his fingers hacked off, a Jehovah's witness (played by Bookwalter) is immediately shot in the front yard in broad daylight then later skinned in the basement and another guy (James L. Edwards) listening to a Walkman and eating cheese puffs gets run over in front of a store. No one seems to really care.

Clearly having more space to fill than what the thin main story will allow, we're introduced to Tom and Whinnie's depressed next door neighbor, Paul Hickox (Floyd Ewing Jr.). Paul is an ex-cop first seen wearing a "Boycott Jane Fonda American Traitor Bitch" shirt, sucking down an entire fifth of vodka for breakfast and passing out. He lost his previous job for accidentally killing an innocent woman and is now going through a nasty, bitter divorce with his bitchy wife, Louise (Jennifer Mullen), who's already gotten custody of the kids and all of his money, and is in the middle of also getting the house. She and her divorce lawyer / lover (Michael Tolochko, also the cinematographer, executive producer, editor and camera operator) show up unannounced to rub salt in the wound by mocking him as he's packing up his stuff. While this should get us in Paul's corner, he's a sullen, self-centered drunk, a wife beater and as big of a shithead as anyone else in the movie, killers included.

Now a well-placed insult or use of profanity can certainly be funny if it's in the right context and done appropriately, but when half the dialogue of your film consists of juvenile attempts at crude humor, the effect becomes numbing and just plain irritating after awhile. Supposed zingers like "fat fuckwad" "dingleberry" "walking abortions" "dick cheese" "stupid fucking idiot jerk-off" and "fat crippled butt fuck" constantly being screamed at the top of lungs by terrible amateur actors playing detestable yet oddly flat characters just isn't much fun. Sad too because this could have been a pretty decent indy horror had the director / writer not coached the cast to act like this (bad actors / non-actors can be likable and personable if handled correctly) and the script not been so terrible.

Aside from some nice colors and autumnal Ohio scenery, the only other redeeming factor in this < 20,000-budgeted, 16mm production are the make-up effects by David Lange and Bill Morrison, with David P. Barton (who'd go on to work for KNB, Kevin Yagher and on many big budget Hollywood films) listed as a consultant. We get plenty of gore and blood here, including a head hacked in two, a body being completely obliterated by machine gun fire, a machete stuck in a shoulder, disembowelments, skinned corpses, a chest carving and much more. These bits are fun; the rest not so much.

Credited director Killough worked as a production designer and actor on a few other Tempe films (like Robot Ninja and the aforementioned Dead Next Door). According to Bookwalter, he also walked off the set at some point and never completed his own film, which forced him to step in and direct additional scenes to push the running time up to around 70 minutes, not including the slow credits. This appears to have severed Killough's ties with Tempe permanently since he didn't work for them again after this. The very busy David DeCoteau was the executive producer.

This was originally given an unrated VHS release on the Cinema Home Video label in 1990, which featured an unrelated photo of Linnea Quigley from MURDER WEAPON (1989) on the front cover. Ample footage from this also ended up padding out the same companies Shock Cinema documentary series.

Many DVD releases on numerous labels followed but those can all now be cast aside for the 2 disc "Ultimate Edition" Blu-ray release from Makeflix. It features the best possible restoration of the film (all things considered) and includes multiple audio commentaries (including a new one with the director and another with Bookwalter and Lange carted over from the 2002 DVD release), interviews with most of the cast and crew, a number of short making-of documentaries, behind the scenes footage, two episodes of a public access sitcom called Roommates many of these same folks worked on and a lot more. There was also a limited edition VHS release for collectors.

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