Skin and Bones
(2008, 43 mins, color, dr, Larry Fessenden)
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Leave it to Larry Fessenden to finally overcome the restrictions of form and content that have shackled virtually every other director who's contributed to Fear Itself. Is there any other filmmaker working today with more experience and skill in good old-fashioned backyard filmmaking? Just a quick glance at the DVD extras on his excellent film Wendigo demonstrates his hands-on approach to filmmaking: The construction of homemade camera rigs and improvised FX are proof of his DIY approach. Like David Lynch, he's one of the few proud "amateurs" in an industry of jaded professionals. It's his personal touch that allows him to color outside the lines, to light and frame scenes through artistic intuition rather than industry trend. This is what distinguishes "Skin and Bones" from the previous seven episodes of Fear Itself. All of the previous installments, including Stuart Gordon's very effective "Eater," have a similar flat look to them, much like any quickly shot TV show. Fessenden's, however, looks like a real movie, with careful attention to light and sound and a creative use of the frame.
"It's just meat."
Hey, guys. Scott's experiencing technical difficulties at the moment—something to do with his dog (seriously!)—so he asked me to step in for this week's episode, "Skin And Bones." It's a purely temporary arrangement, but while I'm here, I plan on stealing all the loose change I can find, making a bunch of long distance calls, and ordering at least a full day's worth of pay-per-view; wouldn't want Scott to come back and not feel missed, y'know?
I'd also planned on raiding the fridge, but after watching "Skin," I think my appetite may be gone for a while.
The pitch: things are not well on the Edlund Ranch. Grady Edlund went into the mountains with a group of men ten days ago, and there's been no word; his wife, Helena (Molly Hagan) is close to despair, his two sons, Derek and Tim, are angry and confused, and Grady's brother Rowdy (John-Pyper Ferguson) finds himself caught between them, worried for his brother's safety while at the same time frustrated at what he considers to be Grady's inexperience and immaturity. There's all sorts of subtext a'bubbling, but before anybody can blow too many secrets, a skeletal figure in a parka stumbles back onto the property. Grady's returned—what's left of him, anyway.
The doctor says he needs food and liquids, but Grady refuses to eat the stews his wife and sons keep bringing him. Which isn't to say he isn't hungry. There's a look in his eyes that wasn't there before, a hateful intensity that makes every trip to his room an ordeal. It gets worse when Grady licks Helena's arm while she's trying to feed him; he tells her "It tastes good." Then somebody half-devours a horse one night, and while Rowdy investigates, Grady watches from his room, grinning his skull's grin.
It's not hard to see what's going on, and to the episode's credit, there isn't much time wasted on people denying the obvious. Once the family's Indian buddy gets a whiff of the situation, he starts talking about the Wendigo, and nobody bothers to contradict him. Clearly, something's off with Grady. It makes you wonder what happened to the men he went into the mountains with; and then Grady himself tells Helena the truth. He was just so hungry. And the voice in his head was just so sweet…
"Skin" is a bit reminiscent of the dark comedy/horror flick Ravenous, a terrific picture about a group of men in the wilderness who start getting really aggressive about the whole "you are what you eat" philosophy. There's the same isolation, some of the same set-up, but the comedy is largely stripped away; in its place is the dynamic of a family well on its way to implosion even before ancient evil gets involved. The way the Wendigo, by using Grady's form, exploits those internal pressures reminded me some of the second story in Bava's Black Sabbath, about a vampire creature that only targets the most beloved of its formerly human self. The problems with the Edlund clan are never overplayed, but always present; when Grady goes so far as to accuse that his wife and brother's betrayal gave him good reason to be vulnerable to invading spirits, it's a nastily plausible suggestion.
Grady is played by the whisper-thin Doug Jones, and his work is one of the episode's biggest strengths. Familiar to genre fans as Abe Sapien in Hellboy 2, the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth, and the guy with the crescent moon head in those old McDonald's commercials, Jones' naturally emaciated-looking body is its own special effects; when highlighted by make-up and prosthetics, his appearance becomes almost unbearable to watch. His performance ranges from empathetic to gleefully cruel, and while he occasionally "shows his top" as the saying goes, he's always entertaining, and never distractingly campy. Early scenes with him lying in bed watching his family are painfully tense because no matter how hard the others try and pretend, there's no way that someone who looks that visibly wrong could ever be safe. There's no question he'll go on the attack, and whenever someone comes within arm's reach, you start wincing in advance for the moment when the monster finally breaks free.
The first half hour of "Skin" is well-done suspense basics. The show is expertly paced, always a problem with anthology series, and the feeling of dread rarely lets up. But after a confrontation between Grady and his guilt-ridden brother, there's a shift in tone, and it's here where things really take off. See, Grady manages to best Rowdy (even though Rowdy had the gun), and he's still hungry—but he's tired of raw meat. So after talking Helena down from shooting him (slightly implausible, but I'll go with it), he forces her into the kitchen and demands she makes him a stew, one with a very special ingredient. Grady thumps Rowdy's corpse onto the table, hands Helena a butcher knife, and demands she cut him up. Which she does, and she cooks the parts she cuts and serves Grady up a bowl of fresh, hot brother; but Grady, it turns out, doesn't like eating alone.
"Skin" has a bit of a shrug for an ending; you get the sense that writers Drew McWeeney and Scott Swan didn't know how to top that kitchen scene, and didn't bother trying. You can't really blame them. Watching Helena choke down bits of Rowdy—the man she really loved, the actual father of her children—to distract Grady long enough for her son to open the gun cabinet not ten feet away from where they're sitting, is a high-water mark I can't imagine improving on. The fact that there's no attempt at a lame kicker ending makes for the perfect final note.
--I really, really didn't expect that to not suck. The show isn't always this good, is it?
--Forgot to mention, but the Indian ranch-hand goes the way of all ethnic sidekicks. But it's his own damn fault, really; a hand-axe against a supernaturally strong creature of the night is never a good call.
--"Skin and Bones" was directed by Larry Fessenden, whose previous directorial work includes a movie called Wendigo. Up next, I Eat Your Skin: the Musical, and a series of cook-books with Rachel Ray. Link
Well, first off I have to give props to the make-up and effects departments. In some prior episodes there have been some pretty awkwardly awful effects scenes ("Eater" when her arm is bitten), but throughout this episode, the make-up on Doug Jones (the Hellboy movies) was just astounding. It's interesting to me that at the NBC website and everywhere I can look, Jones is the only principal listed for this show.
I'll grant that his performance as patriarch Grady was a show-stopper, but John Pyper-Ferguson as his brother and Molly Hagan as his wife are just as integral to the effectiveness of the story and the emotional power that the character back-story provides. In fact, Doug Jones got third billing in the show credits themselves. I guess they just know where the strength of the show lie. And Jones is a proven master at playing the bizarre and/or downright creepy under heavy make-up, as he ultimately does here. With roles like the Silver Surfer (Fantastic Four), Abe Sabien (Hellboy) and El Fauno/The Pale Man (Pan's Labyrinth), Jones is absolutely brilliant at bringing these characters to life.
And make no mistake, it is the power of Jones' acting that truly propels this story into the upper echelons of the short Fear Itself catalog. All in all, the entire cast really helps keep the credibility of this story moving along. Hagan's was the only face I recognized right off the bat, but she has a very distinctive look about her. In a way I was glad that there were no better known stars in this, as it allowed Jones to steal the show.
And while the horror cliches of the isolated environment, the monster picking off the survivors one by one, as well as getting "killed" multiple times before the final blow really takes him down were all in attendance here, as well as the modern horror cliche of an empowered female not allowing herself to be a victim and even giving the final killing blow, ultimately it didn't matter. "Skin and Bones" wasn't about innovative storytelling. It was a classically styled monster yarn told well and acted well.
It's a testament to the casting director that there were no weak links in the acting ensemble here. And with only seven different actors on-screen throughout, it's pretty important that they all hold up their edge of the plot and dialog. Even the kids were believable throughout. And much credit goes to writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, who join us from Showtime's Masters of Horror, for keeping that dialog light on the cheese. In fact with all that solid dialog and a distinct lack of overacting or bad acting in general, this hardly stands up as a typical horror film at all.
The more I think about it, the more pissed I'm getting about it. Half the fun of horror is making fun of the terrible acting and mooning over the girl running through the woods in her underwear tripping over root after root as the monster lumbers after her. What the hell were these guys thinking giving us a well told tale with real sinister elements, a true sense of suspense and an emotional resonance between the characters. Bastards!
In the sense of the classic elements this episode did have, you could argue that it's little more than the earlier episode "Eater" on a farm. Almost all of the same elements are there, except that the body counter in "Eater" is quite a bit higher. It's harder to kill a mother and her children on broadcast television I'd wager. But apparently having her eat the secret father of her children is perfectly alright. You've got to love American television. Intense gore and violence and even a dash of cannibalism are just fine and dandy but flash a nipple and prepare to give up the farm!
The bottom line is "Skin and Bones" is an excellent little horror yarn told well in the limited format. It's a great example of the potential of horror on television. And in retrospect, these later episodes have been so much better than those early installments that I can't for the life of me figure out why the network and/or producers started the series off so weakly. I guess maybe these weren't finished yet, so maybe the whole product is just improving as it goes along.
The problem is that I'm starting to enjoy these different tales so much that I might like to see Fear Itself return for a second season. Perhaps it could become a summer staple for NBC. It'd be a nice change of paced from the deluge of reality television that clogs up the TV pipelines each summer. On a side note, Fear Itself is going on hiatus now to make room for the Olympics. I'm not 100% sure how the ratings have been or if NBC is committed to putting it back on the air afterward, but I hope they do. If, however, this is our final episode together, they definitely went out on a high note. Link
Doug Jones brings down the house in the creepiest episode to date
When a farmer and father of two young boys comes back to his ranch after being out lost in the wilderness with another hunting party for 10 days, something just isn’t right. And I’m not talking about the fact that his brother is sleeping with his wife but he’s changed … for the worse.
The rollercoaster ride of quality that has been NBC’s FEAR ITSELF takes another uphill climb with SKIN AND BONES (airing tonight), albeit a somewhat shaky one. After the outrageousness of their MASTERS OF HORROR scripts CIGARETTE BURNS and PRO-LIFE, writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan have here aimed for a more straightforward horror tale—perhaps too straightforward, as even for an hour-long TV episode, the narrative lacks the twists and variety to truly stand out. Fortunately, SKIN AND BONES has a potent pair of talents in key roles: Larry Fessenden as director and Doug Jones as star, and together they elevate the material to good ’n’ creepy levels.
In his superb feature WENDIGO, Fessenden explored the influence the titular Native American legend has on a family holed up in a remote rural home, and SKIN AND BONES presents a variation on the theme. Here, the setting is a horse ranch where Rowdy (John Pyper-Ferguson) has been running things for the week that his brother Grady has been vanished since heading out on a hunting trip in the nearby mountains. Rowdy has been trying to comfort Grady’s wife Elena (Molly Hagan) and the couple’s sons Derek (Brett Dier) and Tim (Cole Heppell)—and there’s the significant suggestion he’d like to offer Elena more than comfort. Things seem to take a turn for the better when Grady (Doug Jones) staggers home out of the wilds—and then they get a good look at what he has become.
Having made his name in roles completely encasing him in makeup (the HELLBOY movies, PAN’S LABYRINTH) or that have used him as a CGI reference model (FANTASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER), Jones here gets to act with more of his own face. He still sports prosthetics (created by the Gaslight duo of Chris Bridges and Kyle Glencross), but they serve to detract from his features rather than hide them, as Grady has been horrifically emaciated by whatever he ran into out in the trees. He’s immediately put to bed by his concerned family, and there’s a weird comic/horrific vibe to the sight of his ghoulish head resting on the pillow, seemingly disembodied from the withered body barely visible through the blankets.
Grady doesn’t stay bedridden for long, though; he’s got the Wendigo in ’im, and if he still loves his family, he now prefers them raw. What follows is traditional monster-in-the-house stuff, but Fessenden, imbuing SKIN AND BONES with the same rustic/claustrophobic atmosphere he brought to WENDIGO, delivers both tension and a couple of jump-off-your-couch jolts. Alwyn J. Kumst’s cinematography, gorgeous in its early exteriors before becoming eerier when the action moves indoors, is a strong asset, as is the off-kilter score by Fessenden regular Jeff Grace. And at the center of it all is Jones, literally tearing into his role and cutting a genuinely fearsome figure; he really does seem to be inhabited by a malevolent force.
A glimpse or two of Grady pre-possession, to contrast his devolution into a sadistic monster, might have added further depth to the family’s plight, but SKIN AND BONES ultimately finds perennial movie maverick Fessenden adapting to the realm of network TV rather well. Clearly he wasn’t compromised much—a climactic setpiece that can only be described as a truly perverse family dinner is as nasty as anything seen on this series. And Jones’ exposure in this episode will hopefully lead him to more genuine onscreen face time. Link
"Skin and Bones" episode of FEAR ITSELF airs at 10:00
PM on NBC this Thursday, July 31st.
I've had a long love for TV horror that's included DARK SHADOWS, THE NIGHT STALKER (the original TV movie, that is), TRILOGY OF TERROR, AFRAID OF THE DARK, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY and Tobe Hooper's SALEM'S LOT. I was ambivalent about Mick Garris's MASTERS OF HORROR Showtime anthology, partly because I didn't think some of the representative filmmakers were masters, and partly because TV has always been a writer's medium, as opposed to feature films, which are the director's domain, and I was skeptical of Garris's intention to give his directors more say in those mini-movies at the expense of the writers. THE TWILIGHT ZONE featured outstanding work by directors like Richard Donner, but it's celebrated for the scripts by Rod Serling, Richard Mathesson, and Charles Beaumont.
I also admit to doubting the creative potential of FEAR ITSELF, NBC's spinoff sequel to MOH. After all, how could the writers and directors deliver the type of chills that audiences have become accustomed to watching the likes of SAW and HOSTEL at the multi-plex while contending with network censors? Then NBC did something really smart: they hired indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden to helm a script written by Drew McWeeney and Scott Swan (who wrote "Cigarette Burns," the MOH episode directed by John Carpenter).
Fessenden (interviewed here about this episode), is the director of NO TELLING (a modern Frankenstein riff), HABIT (vampires), WENDIGO (Indian spirit), and last year's supernatural environmental film, THE LAST WINTER (now available on DVD). He's also the head of Glass Eye Pix and its low budget horror arm, Scareflix. Fessenden's films emphasize character and tone over shock value, so it's unlikely that as a director for hire he would be hampered by the censors telling him to watch out for the gore. In an interview I recently conducted with him for an upcoming filmmaking book he lamented, "Why can't I just make a scary movie?" As it turns out, "Skin and Bones," airing this Thursday, features plenty of graphic gore and disturbing moments, and Fessenden has finally made his Scary Picture. It's a doozey.
As the episode begins, a rancher's family is distraught because he and his hunting party have been missing in the mountains for 10 days. Then he returns home--minus the other people in his party--emaciated and rather unhealthy looking; almost demonic, you might say. And very hungry...
Swan and McWeeney's teleplay, which takes the cannibalistic Donner Party as its starting point and explores an alternate version of the Wendigo legend, lacks the elegance of Fessenden's own screenwriting, but draws the characters and sets up their predicament quickly so that maximum scares can be delivered in the 42-minute running time. Fessenden takes full advantage of the Alberta, Calgary scenery before moving indoors for the claustrophobic horror. He's dealing with more action (and more overt action) and less dialogue than in his films, so I think he got to flex some different muscles here, to creative effect.
The cast and technical credits are very good, with the make-up frighteningly memorable. Kudos to NBC for allowing so much grue to go out over the airwaves, especially during the scene in which the possessed rancher forces his wife to chop up her murdered lover's corpse so they can share a reunion dinner. The only time the violence felt truncated to me was at the very end of this very chilling episode.
Bonus kudos to whoever designed the series' opening title sequence--beautiful! Link
Indie genre favorite Larry Fessenden (THE LAST WINTER, WENDIGO) tackles this week's episode of FEAR ITSELF entitled, "Skin and Bones" concerning a subject that director is quite familiar with.
A rancher, played by Doug Jones (HELLBOY, PAN'S LABYRINTH) goes missing in the mountains for ten days and miraculously returns home... rather different. Now, his somewhat dysfunctional family must face the ravenous, supernatural force residing inside him.
What makes this episode really work is the incredible Doug Jones. If fellow HELLBOY star Ron Perlman is this generation's Boris Karloff, then Jones is most definitely our Lon Chaney. Doug absolutely owns this role, his performance shining through the very subtle prosthetics and makeup. It's clear that this man is more than just a guy with foam latex stuck to his face. He's a very rare kind of actor who understands makeup as a tool, and works with it instead of around it. He shifts effortlessly between creepy, scary and physically imposing, transforming himself from the inside out, changing even his voice.
Director Larry Fessenden may be working with a different palette here than what he is used to, but the finished piece is still very well crafted. It must be challenging to keep indie sensibilities while dealing with limited running time, commercial breaks and network execs, and I do get the feeling that maybe he wasn't able to put as much of himself into the episode as he would have liked to, but then again he has two films that deal with the same subject in a much different way. In a recent interview, he joked that "Skin and Bones" is like the big-budget Hollywood remake of WENDIGO, and while that observation is not too far off, the finished product is certainly not without Larry's fingerprints on it. There are a quite a few moments of real dread and fear, and some wonderfully composed, creepy shots of Doug doing nothing at all. I would love to see a director's cut of this released on DVD if possible.
Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan wrote the episode, and are best know for John Carpenter's MASTERS OF HORROR episodes, "Cigarette Burns" and "Pro-Life". The script (which can be read on-line for a limited time) is not bad, it just seems to be following the same beats as their previous episodes with a different setting. Apparently John Carpenter was intended to direct this episode, but it was ultimately offered to Fessenden. The thing is, having Larry Fessenden direct an episode about a Wendigo is like having George Romero direct and episode about zombies... it's kind of obvious. It would have been more interesting to see writers and chosen director tackle material outside their respective comfort zones. Hopefully we'll get to see that if NBC orders up another season.
"Skin and Bones" is a solid episode of the so-far-so-good season of FEAR ITSELF, worth watching for Doug Jones alone. It airs this Thursday on NBC so be sure to tune in or set your TiVo's. Check local listings for times. Link
Just a week after Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter hit DVD, his installment of the Masters of Horror spin-off Fear Itself airs this Thursday on NBC. Fear Itself may not technically be a spin-off of MOH, but Mick Garris has admitted that it came about after Showtime said no to a third season of that anthology series. Garris took his horror friends like John Landis, Stuart Gordon and Brad Anderson (all of whom had done MOH installments) and headed to the peacock network. The result, kind of like MOH, has been wildly hit and miss, but even more so than the Showtime incarnation because the peaks haven't been quite as high. Come to think of it, Larry Fessenden seems like a perfect fit for Fear Itself. The man, a writer/director who has some undeniable talent, can be wildly hit and miss and sometimes in the same film. (Check out the review of The Last Winter for more on that.) Written by the legendary Drew McWeeny (Moriarty from Aint It Cool News) and his partner Scott Swan, who wrote the two John Carpenter episodes from the first two seasons of Masters of Horror, the newest episode of Fear Itself has its ups and downs, but will probably leave fans as dissatisfied as most of Fear Itself. Even when Fear has worked, it's really only made us hardcore horror fans wonder what could have been in a third season of Masters of Horror. And when it hasn't, it's made us realize where there isn't a third season of Masters of Horror. Despite a great lead performance and a talented director, "Skin and Bones" falls into the latter category.
In "Skin and Bones", a wealthy rancher (the truly awesome Doug Jones) returns from a week lost in the mountains and he's barely alive. Living up to the title, the rancher looks like the walking dead. Even his family is kind of terrified of him and the doctor says his survival, after ten days in the wilderness, is a miracle. Here's some advice - when a man's wife (Molly Hagan) says "It's in his eyes...he looks like somebody else", take her seriously. In a classic horror set-up, Grady never really returned. After eating his traveling mates for survival, Grady was overtaken by a Wendigo, a flesh-hungry, legendary creature. After an animal on his ranch ends up dead, Grady's family, including his brother Rowdy (John Pyper-Ferguson) come to terms with the fact that their loved one may actually try and eat them. A disappointingly traditional plotline with a predictable climax ensues.
There's a reason that the Wendigo legend persists. It's a strong one. And Larry Fessenden clearly loves this legend. He directed a film called Wendigo before The Last Winter. There are moments in "Skin and Bones" where Fessenden's skill shines through. There's a shot with an emaciated Grady at a barn door that I particularly loved. And Doug Jones simply rules. He's become one of the most interesting physical presences in film, stealing scenes as the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. His riveting physicality nearly makes "Skin and Bones" worth watching and anyone who enjoys this hour of horror television is going to do so largely for what Jones brings to the piece. But both Fessenden and Jones are betrayed by McWeeny and Swan's tin ear for dialogue and the derivative nature of the entire piece. "You think that's your father up there? Well, it's not!" That's merely one example of dozens of lines in "Skin and Bones" that horror fans have heard a thousand times before. McSweeny and Swan throw in a slightly interesting (and very disturbing) twist to the final act (every Fear Itself needs a final act twist), but it's too little too late when the entire first half has felt so overly familiar. The best episodes of MOH and Fear Itself, take concepts that we've seen before (because there really are no new ideas in horror) and make them fresh. Jones makes everything he does more interesting, to the point that his involvement almost satisfies that "fresh" threshold, but you can't shake the feeling that you've seen everything around him before. Maybe even on Masters of Horror. Link