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Skin Crawl

POPcinema // R // April 10, 2007
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted March 13, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
Someone in the mainstream media needs to hurry up and hire Debbie Rochon before she loses the desire to perform before the camera. This attractive, intelligent woman has been wasting away in the fringes of outsider cinema for far too long. Granted, it gives novice moviemakers with little or no cash a definite bit of personal production value, but for an actress with as much raw talent as Rochon to simply be some fanboy's easily hire-able eye candy seems a shame. A good example of her underused abilities is the wannabe thriller Skin Crawl. Crafted by a first time filmmaker desperate for an attention-gaining gimmick, and offering Rochon a fully realized role without mandatory nudity or nastiness, this narratively complex effort should make for an interesting fright night at the movies. Instead, ambition thwarts entertainment as the movie's knotty plot purposefully avoids letting the audience enjoy the plentiful paranormal pulp.

The Plot:
After being accused of witchcraft, a trio of colonial era girls find themselves at the mercy of the local powerbrokers. These immoral louts visit the gals regularly, picking out one to take into the woods and rape. When they 'accidentally' cause the death of one of the women, the others swear revenge. They cast a spell that curses the community, guaranteeing retribution against anyone who harms the family ever again. Fast forward three hundred years, and poor, put upon Margaret is in deep denial. Her marriage to uncaring Howard is failing, and she feels unloved and unwanted for the first time in her otherwise privileged life. While on a business trip, she is kidnapped and murdered by a pair of carjacking psychopaths. It seems like the random act of a serial killing duo – or is it? In fact, it's quite possible that Howard played a part in his rich wife's death, and the slutty gal pal he's recently hooked up with may also be a catalyst for all this carnage. But remember – Margaret is protected by her familial legacy. She will gain her revenge on all involved, even if it's from beyond the grave!

The DVD:
Welcome to the world of 'good news/bad news' horror film criticism. On the analytic menu today – the under-baked revenge flick Skin Crawl. Lining up the likable elements of this outsider effort, we find a willing cast (complemented by current schlock scream queen Debbie Rochon) eager to deliver in the dread department. Similarly, first time writer/director Justin Wingenfeld wants to utilize a Pulp Fiction/ Rashomon style for his narrative, twisting and turning the basic plot points into something surprising...and sinister. And finally, for you lovers of gore and gratuity, actress Julian Wells is in a near constant state of nudity, exposing her chest with routine regularity, while the finale features a decent amount of Italian terror inspired grue. It's actually a pretty impressive collection of pluses, each one an example of a movie trying to make a motion picture mountain out of a standard macabre molehill. But wait – that's only one side of the story. What about the negatives, you ask? Are the flaws facing this film fatal, or merely minor pitfalls along the road to a decent indie effort? Sadly, the cons really cold cock this movie, delivering deathblows over and over again to something that is trying, stoically, to remain engaging and upright. Indeed, in the end, the problems completely scuttle the scares, resulting in a fright film without horror, a tepid tale of supernatural vigilantism that just falls apart.

A good percentage of the responsibility falls at Wingenfeld's feet. He is trying too much here, applying different genre elements to his haphazard concept of story. As part of his perplexing approach to narrative, he will begin with some easy to understand issue (a couple having marital problems), add a basic bump in the road (hubby is having an affair) and then abandon the original idea to explore something much more complicated and dark (in this case, the death of a main character). While it seems a little strange, these sudden motiveless shifts, Wingenfeld does have a plan. How successful his strategy is (or in this case, isn't) is part of Skin Crawl's difficulty. You see, nothing is as it seems here. Everything has several shoddy layers of unbelievable backstory to contend with. Aside from some blatant time continuity issues, this filmmaker wants us to believe that the minute our sullen spouse gets a little of the illicit sex he's been craving all these years, he will let his rent-a-slut gal pal convince him to commit murder. Must be some incredibly hot poon, right? But then the premise gets even more prickly as Wingenfeld infers that our ready and willing whore is actually part of a low rent criminal conspiracy to bilk our horny hubby out of his yet to be determined fiscal windfall. Push that plot point even further, and we meet a couple of killers who themselves have a whole history that the movie wants to explore.

This puzzle box approach, with its visual looping back and forth in time, really tries one's patience. Just as you're getting a handle on the interpersonal dynamic between Rochon and her bland 'better half' (Kevin G. Shinnick is dull as the manipulated married at the center of the story), we're watching a white trash girlfriend make mac and cheese (with the added goodness of sliced hotdogs) for the psychotic murderers. Even more confusing, Wingenfeld takes us back to colonial days, merely to establish the rationale for a character's last act return from the grave. The period piece material is handled well – especially in a nicely goofy moment when an animated devil makes an appearance over the Rochon family household – but it doesn't really pay off in the way the movie wants it to. Since there is no closure to this portion of the plot (we get an incantation, a cartoon demon, and POOF! – it's present day) and no reference back to the curse once the zombie stomping starts, there's a disconnect involved that really undermines the mood. But the biggest crime Skin Crawl commits is waiting for three quarters of its scant storyline to slog by before delivering the bloody goods. Indeed, there are more faked sex scenes in this film than shots of paranormal payback. Julian Wells, who plays the manipulative skank to "needs to die" perfection, gets a lovely little death scene, complete with vomiting and putrescent maggots (yum!). But the rest of the terror is implied, just red stuff dripping off walls and wardrobe. It's too bad that Skin Crawl couldn't get its scary movie act together. There is some good material here. Sadly, it is muzzled by the desire for too much onscreen invention.

The Video:
As one of POP Cinema's (a division of Shock-O-Rama) first productions, Skin Crawl doesn't look half bad. The 1.33:1 full screen image is interesting, loaded with bright colors and expert lighting. There are some minor issues with the analog elements (slight flaring in a couple of places, a lack of clearly defined details in others), but overall, the picture is pretty good. Wingenfeld is not what you would call an artistic director. His style is fairly basic, and he doesn't believe in awkward angles or self-evident stylistic choices. The compositions and framing here are solid and unobtrusive, which helps to sell some of the movie's more middling aspects.

The Audio:
There is a real problem with the audio in this film – or perhaps it's a part of the DVD transfer. During one scene in particular, we hear more ambient noises – passing traffic, random footfalls – than conversation between the characters. This happens a lot in Skin Crawl, illustrating one of the downsides of using an internal camcorder microphone dynamic for your recording ideal. The Dolby Digital Stereo mangles the sonic mishmash, turning more than one sequence into an exercise in remote volume control. Unfortunately, it seems that this barebones aural approach is par for the course in low budget filmmaking.

The Extras:
As part of their desire to sell this movie to the macabre masses, POP and Shock-O-Rama have attempted to flesh out the presentation with some interesting added content. Both the Making-Of/Interview featurette with Wingenfeld and Rochon and the full length audio commentary (with Wingenfeld and producer Michael Rasso) are engaging, The Q&A centers mostly on anecdotes from the production, including the lessons learned from working with bugs, and how to create believable special effects. In addition, Rochon explains what attracted her to the project, and the fun she had playing her first ever onscreen zombie. As for the behind the scenes discussion between Wingenfeld and Rasso, it's a decent affair. Both are very amiable and admit where the movie fails to fulfill its promise. Along with some intriguing insights into the world of low budget filmmaking, the duo deliver a thoroughly professional look at their earnest indie production. Toss in some trailers and you have a nice DVD package.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, it's hard to despise what writer/director Justin Wingenfeld was attempting here. Sure, it's frequently as boring as homemade horror gets. Yes, it loses its way once it decides to go off on uninteresting narrative tangents. Granted, we have to wait over an hour before the red stuff makes its better late than never appearance, and no amount of nudity is going to remove the aura of acting aggravation that accompanies every scene that Julian Wells is in. But if you overlook all of these flaws and get with the flow of what Skin Crawl is trying, you may actually find yourself entertained. As a result, this film will earn a borderline rating of Recommended. In fact, a rental may indeed be the best place to start. Then you can gauge how successful, or shoddy, this attempted thriller actually is. One thing remains a constant, however. Debbie Rochon deserves some manner of mainstream success. Her talents are wasted away in a world of outsider auteurs and under-funded filmmaking.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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