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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Skeletons Dave DeCoteau 1998

Closets are for Skeletons, not People

There’s nothing like a good lynching to bring a family together.

Apologists, sympathizers, and rich white girls who only date black men will no doubt be thoroughly delighted by the “evil-lurketh-in-Hidden-Valley” mystery-horror-drama Skeletons, which finds genre vet Dave DeCoteau trading up sorority houses and bowling alleys for Town Squares and churches, and scream queens like Linnea Quigley and Brinke Stevens for… well… scream queens like Dee Wallace-Stone. Earnest, glossy, and boasting a surprising central gay plot, Skeletons manages to combine the central elements of Needful Things and Funny Farm, resulting in a cautionary tale about small-town values that essentially concludes, “in America, you’re better off being retarded than being a homo, black, Asian, or a Jew – until a homo, black, Asian or Jew blows a hole in you.”

The movie begins at a police standoff, where a woman holds her abusive husband hostage after he punched her in the stomach, killing their unborn child. Already, this flick has Lifetime Television Heavy Rotation written all over it. So who should arrive but Peter Crane (Ron Silver), a journalist of some sort, who talks to the woman about her problem (she seems to have some sort of friendly relationship with him) until the cops break down the door, leading her to pop a cap in her babydaddy before the pigs have the chance to waste her. We quickly move to the lovely home that Pete shares with his wife Heather (the ever-awesome Dee Wallace-Stone) and son Zack (Kyle Howard, best known for his role in the ill-fated Grosse Pointe), where Pete proceeds to have a heart attack immediately before he is supposed to receive the Pulitzer Prize.

Already we’re in strange territory. Police stakeouts? Crane shots? Pulitzer Fucking Prizes? This is not standard material for a horror drama – and certainly not ground well-traveled by DeCoteau, whose earlier films like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and Nightmare Sisters are better known for imps in bowling trophies and naked chicks in bathtubs. At this point in the film I’m thoroughly confused: who was that crazy woman holding her husband hostage? Why is Ron Silver whispering? And what the fuck is up with the Pulitzer Prize? Despite my confusion, I’m willing to stay tuned because I like a good mystery and would watch Dee sleep for two hours, had I the chance.

The Cranes move to a scenic backlot in Southern California, in which all the citizens think they are in Maine but many speak with southern accents. Either this town has an inordinate number of Witness Relocation participants or there was no budget for an accent coach. At any rate, a number of Creepy White People start introducing themselves to the family, and all seems to be going nicely. Dee, in particular, seems to be enjoying the quaintness of it all, while Mr. Big Fat Pulitzer seems a hair bit more cynical about their new Stepfordian digs (has he got a nose for trouble, or what?!). It seems that on top of being housed in a backlot, this town is also filled with well-known character actors who either missed the bus back to the Valley or have performed so many times on this set that they think it’s home: James Coburn (as the jovial Frank Jove), Christopher Plummer (as the cool Reverend Carlyle), Paul Bartel (as – get this – the mayor!), Carroll Baker (as a mother out for justice) and even David Graf (yes, Tackleberry from Police Academy, as a local laborer) are all prominently featured.

Soon after arriving in this impossibly idyllic town, Peter is visited by a Mrs. Norton (Baker), who tells him that her son is being held unjustly for murder, a crime which he could not have committed considering that he was the lover of the dead man. His interest piqued by the thought of an article-worthy injustice in a small town, Pete goes to visit Jim (Dennis Christopher, best known for playing the geek in IT and the cyclist in Breaking Away) in prison and confirms that yes, Jim and the victim were indeed butt-buddies, and even worse – computer programmers. Jim says that he and Chris were “found out” by a bunch of kids selling cookies or something, who spied them snuggling while watching TV through their window (all together: “Awwwww…”), and soon enough the entire town was out to get them. The stress on their relationship caused them to have a public fight at the bank, after which Jim went home and, like any self-respecting queer, got piss-drunk by himself (it’s not mentioned explicitly, but we can imagine that either opera or Sondheim was blasting from every speaker in the house). When he awoke, Chris was dead and Jim was wanted for murder.

Pete finds all of this quite interesting, but not as interesting as the reactions from the locals when they hear that he’s trying to help Jim uncover the truth. Before you can say “fag-lover”, Pete and his family are subjected to a number of indignities ranging from a burning crucifix in their yard, Zack having “FAGIT” carved in his back by the local bully (who apparently couldn’t decide whether Zack was a homo or related to Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous), and Heather is – gasgp! – frozen out of the local beauty parlor. In a scene that plays out like Dee Wallace-Stone stepping into a community theatre production of Steel Magnolias, the ladies of the town all but call her a fag-hag and tell her to take a hike without so much as a cut-and-color. The nerve!

But this is just a warm-up to the main event: as Heather and Zack are driving along in their pickup, a Mack truck rig rams them from behind and runs them off the road. Suddenly, two strapping shirtless men jump out of the rig with a sledgehammer and a chainsaw, and proceed to destroy the pickup with Heather and Zack screaming bloody murder inside. What?! What the FUCK?! At this point my money is on this being a dream sequence. The sweaty, hunky lugs smash through the windows and pour what might be gasoline all over the helpless New Yorkers, and we cut to Peter at home. Heather and Zack walk through the front door covered in tar or shit or something, and Dee whines one of the most beautiful put-upon whines I’ve ever seen.

Anyway, things go from bad to worse pretty quickly and before you can say "I wonder if the crazy hag who lives on the edge of town and the evil preacher have anything to do with this?", Pete and Heather are embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with the townspeople that doesn't end well for everyone. True, the big "reveal" is really no mystery by this point, as it's clear from the opening scenes in the town what's going on here, but it still manages to wrap itself up nicely with some unexpected gore and a fairly hot freak-out courtesy of Ms. Wallace-Stone. The moral? Big Cities Gooood; Small Towns Baaaaaaaad.

Despite having a decidedly Movie-of-the-Week feel to it (which is a plus, in my book) that is only broken when the characters start yelling "Fuck!" in moments of desperation, Skeletons is a satisfying watch that moves along nicely and has enough weirdo elements to keep things interesting. The big obstacle in enjoying the film for me was the central presence of actor-cum-Republican-politico Ron Silver, whom I generally can't stand. Here he's his usual smug shit character, but in an odd performance choice, he literally whispers every single line of dialogue, be it at a town picnic, at home with his family, or while confronting the evil priest and his minions. It's actually so bizarre that it lessened my usual dislike for Silver's perfomances, and stands out in his canon as one of his stranger choices of roles. And, of course, as he is balanced by the luminous and brilliant Wallace-Stone, he quickly fades into shadows. The question as to whether or not his character is supposed to be perceived as Jewish is left open, but his arguments with the ever-excellent Plummer in the church do seem to have an undercurrent of religious conflict (as does burning a crucifix in one's yard, I suppose).

In all, Skeletons is an odd selection from DeCoteau's list of credits, being neither camp nor erotic nor featuring an overabundance of boys in underwear. Earnest and well-crafted, Skeletons may be nothing shocking, but perhaps that in itself is shocking enough.

Rating (out of 5):