Following the completion of his Sam Raimi-funded independent zombie movie The Dead Next Door, Ohio-based filmmaker J.R. Bookwalter found himself making a movie called Robot Ninja for executive producer David DeCoteau’s recently founded production/distribution company Cinema Home Video. Robot Ninja was a disappointment to all involved, but the movie making show must go on, so Bookwalter soon pitched another movie to DeCoteau, this one to be written and directed by his friend Jon Killough.
DeCoteau gave the project a greenlight and a $15,000 budget, which is the same amount that Robot Ninja was made for, plus another $12,000 for 16mm film stock and crew salaries. The next year Bookwalter would be shooting six movies on VHS for DeCoteau with a combined budget of $15,000, so Skinned Alive was quite a splurge with a total of 27k behind it.
For the story of Skinned Alive, Killough drew clear inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes; his film concerns a homicidal family of three – dimwitted manchild Phink, his tough-talking and seductive sister Violet, and their eyepatch-sporting, wheelchair-bound mother Crawldaddy, who insists her children call her daddy rather than mama – who travel around the country in their beat-up old van with a bull skull on the front and Crawldaddy’s Traveling Tannery painted on the side. Whenever this trio comes across someone in a vulnerable position, whether they be a hitchhiker or someone whose vehicle has broken down, they murder them in some brutal fashion, skin them, tan their hides, and sell the skin as fine leather products.
While Texas Chainsaw and Hills Have Eyes had characters run into vehicle trouble while passing through the territory of their murderous families, Skinned Alive does the reverse – while they’re heading down to Columbus on Halloween, the Crawldaddy family’s van breaks down in a small Ohio town.
They take the vehicle to an auto shop run by kindly Tom Miles, who offers to put the family up in his basement while the out-of-towners wait for him to get their van back in working order. Being completely irreverent and psychotic, the family keeps murdering nearly everyone they come across during their time stuck in this little town, which eventually draws them into conflict with the man who lives next door to Tom Miles and his talkative wife Whinnie – Paul Hickox, a man who recently lost his job on the police force after killing a woman in the line of duty. If that wasn’t enough, his horrendous harpie of a wife is also divorcing him and the lawyer she’s sleeping with is making sure she’s going to get the house, all of Paul’s money, and sole custody of their children. Paul deals with the fact that his life has fallen apart by watching war movies and chugging whole bottles of vodka.
When the Crawldaddy family’s murderous activities become clear to him, Paul arms himself and takes them on.
After approving of his story pitch, Bookwalter told Killough to “make something as offensive as possible” when they set out to put together Skinned Alive, and Killough did his best to deliver, making characters repulsive, filling the dialogue with very colorful vulgarities, writing in gore sequences that were sometimes too complicated for the small production to pull off, and dropping in hints of other taboo subject matters. Despite all this, the film’s edge is blunted by its cartoonishly comedic tone, which makes it more delightful to watch than offensive.
Although it came together quite quickly, Skinned Alive went through some big changes during its development period and even early on in filming, as is discussed in the special features of the 2002 DVD release. When Killough first thought it up, it was going to include a character that was more of a straightforward rip-off of TCM’s Leatherface. Then while creating the Crawldaddy family, he had envisioned Crawldaddy being a man before the decision was made to incongruously cast a woman in the role. A celebrity (Donald Pleasence was on the list of possibilities) was meant to cameo as a sheriff with Scott Spiegel meant to play his deputy, and both of them were going to be victims. Then the cops were replaced by a teenage female victim, who was eventually replaced by an overweight man whose car breaks down on the way to see a Wayne Newton show.
Due to issues with their performances, the actors playing Violet and Phink were replaced after some filming had already been done, with makeup artist/director’s girlfriend Susan Rothacker taking over as Violet and Scott Spiegel being promoted into the role of Phink. The actors who preceded them may have been doing subpar jobs, but Rothacker and Spiegel absolutely did not, they both deliver awesome performances as the foul-mouthed, bickering, homicidal siblings.
The rest of the cast does great as well. Floyd Ewing, Jr. is our troubled hero Paul Hickox, Lester Clark and Barbara Katz-Norrod are a whole lot of fun as Tom and Whinnie Miles, and J.R. Bookwalter himself has a cameo as a character who has a hilarious reaction to getting shot in the chest.
Unfortunately, some cast members have been lost in the years since this movie was shot in October of 1989. Lester Clark was tragically killed in a car accident right around the time Skinned Alive came out on DVD, and the impetus behind my recent viewing of the film was the news that Mary Jackson recently passed away.
Mary Jackson is the actress who brought Crawldaddy herself to the screen, and she delivers a fantastic performance as the jaw-droppingly, highly amusingly foul matriarch/patriarch. Jackson’s only other acting credit came from a small part as a cleaning lady in Bookwalter’s later film Ozone, but she’ll always be remembered by me because of the very fun job she did in Skinned Alive.
In the end, Killough was as disappointed with how Skinned Alive turned out as many of the people involved with Robot Ninja were with it, or as Bookwalter was with most of the movies in the “six pack” that soon followed. In his interview on the DVD, he says he wouldn’t mind if the movie was just blasted off to Mars. As the person responsible for creating it, he can only see its faults, how it’s lacking in comparison to his original vision. He’s too close to it to see what a truly enjoyable and amusing movie it still turned out to be, even if it isn’t what he wanted it to be.
I, for one, am thankful that Skinned Alive hasn’t been buried on Mars. I’m proud to have it in my DVD collection. I watch it often, will continue to do so, and will always be appreciative of the entertaining work done by Tom Lester, Mary Jackson, and their co-stars.