Skinner came along at the right time. At the start of the 1990s, Hollywood had anointed the serial killer genre with five Oscars for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Seven, Natural Born Killers and Scream were just a few years away. Multiple grisly murders were officially in vogue at the box office. Ivan Nagy’s Skinner joined the homicidal Gold Rush in 1993.
Given the reputation it has built up for extreme, tasteless gore, the opening frames set the pace for a surprisingly sedate horror. Ted Raimi heads up an intriguing cast as twisted psychopath Dennis Skinner, whom we meet hypnotically running his hand through a gentle current of water in an industrial Los Angeles. As Skinner’s sole, deformed survivor, Traci Lords’s druggy narration sets up the loose narrative motor of the film: she is hell bent on revenge. Add to that a wiry, pre-West Wing Richard Schiff as a sleazy motel owner and Ricki Lake as a naïve landlady (blissfully unaware that her new tenant is eyeing her up for his new flesh suit) and we’re ready to recoil.
Infamous for general tastelessness (including a squirm-inducing flaying scene), Skinner has a lot going for it – not least Ted Raimi’s oddball central performance. In the early 90’s, Raimi had B-movie horror pedigree, having appeared in a string of scuzzy 80s slashers, including his brother Sam’s seminal Evil Dead movies. As Dennis Skinner, he relishes the opportunity to step into a leading role and, well, completely bug out.
Sadly, Ivan Nagy doesn’t know how to modulate Raimi across his spectrum of psychotic behaviour, from quietly creepy to full-blown nut job; impersonating his victims whilst wearing their torn-off faces. In his first meeting with Ricki Lake, Skinner’s attempt at small talk is so unnervingly stilted that it is impossible to believe he would be offered a room in her house straight off the bat. Such carelessness with character makes the story less compelling than it could have been.
Maybe Nagy had things other than film directing on his mind? Included on this disc is an entertaining 2007 interview with the director, who seems most interested in settling a score with Nick Broomfield (whom he believes vilified him for his involvement in the Heidi Fleiss Hollywood prostitution scandal). Elsewhere on the extras, Ted Raimi does his best to reappraise Skinner whilst distancing himself from a spectacularly awful sequence where he wears the skin of a black man and impersonates him whilst murdering a prostitute.
Still, the director must have presumed that by shattering the boundaries of taste he might reach a bloodthirsty audience primed for murder. Yet Skinner fell through the cracks. The film was mauled by critics, bombed with audiences and met with moral disgust from everyone but hardcore horror fans. Twenty-six years later, it doesn’t seem likely that this 4K restoration will do much for Skinner’s reputation. Viewing the film alongside a string of new extras, a picture emerges of a B-movie horror scene that didn’t really stand a chance of breaking out of the VHS bargain bucket. But if you need to see a human skinning performed by an expert of the trade, Dennis Skinner is your man.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 14 Oct 2019