Crawldaddy and her two children, Violet and Phink, are psychopathic makers and sellers of fine leather apparel right off the backs of, well, literally ripped right off the fleshy backs of anyone they come across! When their van breaks down in a small, dumpy, low-bred Ohio town, Crawldaddy is forced to play nice with the town’s only mechanic, Tom, who offers a complete line of unreciprocated hospitality to the strange out-of-towners, but that doesn’t stop her and her children from committing slice and dicing of the local residents while bunkering in Tom and wife’s basement spare room. When Tom’s neighbor, Paul, an alcohol abusing ex-cop on the edge as a result of a brutal divorce, senses trouble and discovers Crawldaddy’s den of skin, the quiet small town explodes with bullets and blades in a macabre showdown.
Forget the Firefly family that has brought backwoods kin-in-arms killers to the masses in vogue fashion. Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding have nothing on Crawldaddy’s foul-mouth, foul-smelling skinner family who ranks as the top trash, living the nomad lifestyle with all the depraved trimmings of the criminally insane. Written and directed by Jon Killough, who after working on J.K. Bookwalter’s “The Dead Next Door” and “Robot Ninja” in multi-hat roles, “Skinned Alive” was bestowed a greenlight by Bookwalter to explore the creative side of Killough’s vile and offensive laden hillbilly horror that was released in 1990, before that very subgenre was coined and monetized years later. David DeCoutea, who envisioned the eviscerated virtuoso of the gruesome filmmaking talents from Todd Sheets to J.R. Bookwalter, served as executive producer and Bookwalter’s The Tempe Suburban Company tackled “Skinned Alive” with all the ingenious bloody pizzazz and outlandish death set financier and production company while filming the project in Ohio.
Since The Suburban Tempe Company is a tight-knit production company, familiar faces from Bookwalter’s previous films have been cast, beginning with Paul Hickox, the ex-cop with a drinking and ex-wife problem, played by Floyd Ewing Jr. The Hickox character crosses over from “Robot Ninja” into “Skinned Alive,” but exhibited in a dichotomous life position. While Ewing nails being a man dragged through the pig slop of divorce, Paul feels cut short with the amount of buildup written for the character that’s centered around ex-wife woes of losing his house and kids, depressed into drinking, and has to deal with a sleazy lawyer whose also litigating his former wife in a court of a sex. However, “Skinned Alive” is all about the bad guys. In the majority of horror films, the bad guys are always the most interesting because of their rancid flavored persona and for our culturally-collective love of the eccentric, the offbeat, and the grim of villainy. Crawldaddy embodies those despicable characteristics without so much of breaking a sweat with a abhorrent-welcoming performance by the late Mary Jackson. Jackson, who went on later to work Bookwalter again in a minor role in “Ozone,” is transformed from a singing beauty to a basket case of a wretched, wheelchair bound hag, unearthing her uncouth Hyde at the flip of a switch. Jackson is complimented by Susan Rothacker as the alluring-but-deadly Violent, a roll filled in the last minute by the film’s makeup artist when things didn’t work with Jackson’s daughter Lorie, and the one and only Scott Spiegel as Phink. The energetic Spiegel has been a part of the longstanding Sam Raimi entourage, having minor roles in Raimi films, such as “The Evil Dead,” “Darkman,” and “Drag Me to Hell,” and when “Skinned Alive” became in need of a Phink, Spiegel may have just saved the film by his presence alone as the “Intruder” and “Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money” director brings the manic ticks and callous charisma to Phink’s traits. Rothacker ups the character dynamics with Phink as the pair’s love-hate relationship is a slap-stick of incest and homicidal cravings that fits right into the vile veneer of the story. “Skinned Alive’s” cast rounds out with Lester Clark (“The Dead Next Door”), Barbara Katz-Norrod (“Kingdom of the Vampire”), Mike Shea (“Robot Ninja”), Mike Render (“Robot Ninia”), J.R. Bookwalter as a tortured Jehovah’s witness, and Jon Killough as an unlucky the hitchhiker.
As Killough’s indirect byproduct of Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Skinned Alive” is the skewed, bad dream version of the devious Sawyer family with heavy notes of black comedy chucked into the fold for an all-out odious assault on all fronts, but Killough’s first and only feature didn’t come out totally unscathed as a harmonious horror-comedy. With little film stock left to shoot with and production controversial new scenes written by Killough and then altered by Bookwalter without consent, “Skinned Alive” became a rapid fire production of short shots compiled together that resulted in a choppy flow. You could also discern which filmmaker wrote which dialogue in the filler scene between ex-cop Paul and his ex-wife with her sidepiece arrogant lawyer; Bookwalter adds witty, if not smart, dialogue to reinforce Paul’s degrading life while Killough’s dialogue for the rest of the feature is an expletive warzone without much of a strategy. Both discourses work for the benefit “Skinned Alive,” but do cause a blatant, patchwork barrier between the conversing styles. David Lange and Bill Morrison’s special effect makeup work is a complete continuation from “The Dead Next Door” and “Robot Ninja” of rendering gooey, gory visuals on a budget. Sometimes, yes, you can see how unflattering the realism can be and easily securitize the flaws, but at the same time, the ingenuity trumps over cost and that elevates the effects beyond any dollar figure the film might cost. That partial prosthetic of ripped flesh on Spiegel’s Phink when he’s hot in the face is one my favorite effects not only for the gruesome details, but for also its versatility. It could easily be a bear claw swipe or a flesh eating bacteria, making the possibilities endless for Lange and Morrison. Thirty-years later, “Skinned Alive” has preserved a rightful staunch cult following for it’s unparalleled grotesque veneer that will endure to linger for another 30 years plus thanks to technological advances and vehement filmmakers who are also filmic preservationist like J.R. Bookwalter.
Speaking of which, J.R. Bookwalter and his company, Tempe Digital, has painstakingly restored “Skinned Alive” and released it on a region free ultimate edition, dual-format Blu-ray/DVD, distributed by Makeflix. The original 16mm A/B roll cut negative was scanned in 2K and is presented in the retained 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The scan brought the transfer int a low-contrast in order to color correct and bring more life into the presentation from previous untouched versions and removed all of the white speckled dirt and scratches from nearly much of movie; a silver-lining made possible by COVID-19 quarantine that allotted the time to do so. The color grading now has a much more vibrant appeal though slightly losing details from the high contrast with some of the more brilliant red glowing scenes in Tom and Whinnie’s basement. Limited to 1000 pressings, “Skinned Alive,” the 30th Anniversary ultimate edition, by visuals alone, should be blipping frantically on any avid collector’s radar and sought by all genre aficionados. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound stem from the DA-88 tape archives of the original 16-track audio masters and while much of the dialogue and musical score remained, a good chunk of the ambience and effects were rebuilt and remixed, defining a clearer, cleaner audio track presentation of balanced levels from all different file sets. Aside from some small synchronization issues between the dialogue and the scenes, the range is pitch perfect and the depth is excellent. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles included. Bonus features, you say? The ultimate edition has you covered with the BR disc one containing a 2020 commentary with writer/director Jon Killough and moderated by Tempe historian Ross Snyder of Saturn’s Core Audio and Video as well as a 2002 audio commentary with producer J.R. Bookwalter and makeup effects artist David Lange. Other new material includes a 16 minute featurette entitled “Carving Up 30 Years of ‘Skinned Alive,'” featuring a number of interviews with the cast and crew recollecting good times on set, a remembering Mary Jackson featurette that includes Jackson’s son and daughter, among cast and crew, commemorating the Crawldaddy actress, an interview with Scott Spiegel, 2020 location tour, artwork and promotional gallery, behind the scenes gallery, production stills, and, my personal favorite, J.R. Bookwalter walking through the restoration process step-by-step giving insight on the time and effort into restoring the films such as “Skinned Alive.” Disc 2, the DVD, includes a 2002 audio commentary with Doug Tilley and Moe Porne of The No-Budget Nightmares Podcast, the 1987 and 1988 “roommates” TV sitcom episode featuring the “Skinned Alive” cast and crew, the Joy Circuit “Love Turns to Darkness” music video, a making off featurette of “Skinned Alive,” behind the scenes, Camera and wardrobe tests, a short 2 minute segment about the 2002 remastering and the original DVD release trailer. That’s not all! Let’s not forget to mention the equally packed release package that includes a reversible wrap featuring original 1990 VHS artwork in the casing and new cover art by Alex Sarabia on the slip cover, plus an eight-page color booklet with liner notes by Ross Snyder. The only thing missing is a soundtrack CD compact…wait, there is one! Come September 18, the original motion picture soundtrack, featuring 29 tracks, will be released with scores composed and performed by J.R. Bookwalter, songs by Hang Dangle, Foxx, Virgil Pittman, Joy Circuit, Dave Jackson and Kenny Boyd, Seven Sez U, The Ninja Sequencers, and Willie and the Wagon Wheels. This 2-disc set is the holy grail for die hard “Skinned Alive” fans who know and appreciate the unique, second to none hillbilly horror that’s flagrant on every level.