By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Willy Adkins and Annelyse Ahmad
Directed by B.A. Lewandowski and Tony Wash
Written by Johnny Hlousek, Tony Wash
Cow Lamp Films
You know what really gets my ghoul these days? 1980s nostalgia horror. Not because there’s anything wrong with a good homage (STRANGER THINGS, of course, springs to mind), but the bad ones come by the baker’s dozen. Oftentimes, this is rooted in a basic misunderstanding of just what makes the works a filmmaker is paying homage to so likeable in the first place. I touched upon this with my review of TERRIFIER (a gore-fest that championed itself as the ultimate old-school slasher, even as it jettisoned many of the elements that make that subgenre so darn lovable) but this phenomenon has reached a new level of irritation with ultra-low-budget anthology. SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET, a film that, from top to bottom, completely misses the mark as a nostalgic piece of entertainment.
As 11-year-old Jamie (Alaina Carner) cozies up in front of the boob tube for her favorite Friday night block of horror programming, her evening of terrifying delights is threatened when her annoying teenage babysitter, Tina (Elizabeth Stenholt) shows up to cramp her style. As the show gets rolling, The Widow and Charlie (Ellie Church and Adam Michaels as a murderous horror hostess and her undead husband) engage in their routine mockery of the evening’s chosen flick—an anthology titled CHOP SHOP—much to Jamie’s delight. Tina, however, is confused, unenthused, and not-nearly-concerned enough about the recently escaped lunatic asylum inmate who just so happens to be lurking around the house…
Things start off well with corny mock-commercials, images of Ronald Reagan, and aerobics classes as we meet precocious Jamie and her gum-smacking sitter, but everything starts to come apart at the seams as soon as the two settle in to watch the titular program. Though the Widow and her long-rotting husband’s banter is full of toasty chestnuts, the two almost never acknowledge the viewer, a truly head-scratching choice from writers and co-directors Johnny Hlousek (Bloody-disgusting.com’s WORLD OF DEATH), Tony Wash (HIGH ON THE HOG), and B.A. Lewandowski (DOVE), filmmakers who all share a clear affinity for and experience with the horror hosts of yore. Obviously, the ability to break the fourth wall is the hallmark of horror host-dom, from Zacherle to Elvira to Svengoolie, and without a seducing blend of audience interaction and macabre humor, SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET hobbles its most appealing centerpiece from the start.
Things go from bad to worse once CHOP SHOP, the film-within-the-film begins. This ramshackle “anthology” was actually shot as a separate feature altogether from SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET beginning in 2013, and it shows. The first story, about a young girl who comes to believe that her grandmother is some sort of flesh-eating monster, is the most effective of the three and features an anachronistic, though notable mid-90s GOOSEBUMPS television series vibe. Featuring some nice use of child’s perspective and almost sickeningly extreme angles, there are brief spurts of effectiveness here. The second story is hardly a story at all, but rather an extremely brief monologue in which an abused housewife fantasizes about the murder of her husband. The third tale is almost intriguing, focusing on two criminals who are hunted by a junkyard haunting spirit called The Dismantler, but quickly becomes unwatchable. All of these segments (including a baffling POV wraparound narrative which may or may not take place in Hell?) are filled with torture-porny gore and utterly sullied by seasickness-inducing shaky cam, schizophrenic intercutting, and a glut of phony VHS static. “Static! Seriously? Gag me with a spoon. Why is the quality so bad?” groans Tina, in the film’s single moment of self-awareness.
Though the anthology section is DOA, The Widow and Charlie/Jamie and Tina’s interactions offer some laughs and a respite from the visual onslaught. These aren’t enough, however to keep SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET’s head above water. This may be because we’re watching a film about two people watching two other people watch four virtually unconnected short films, while an unseen serial murderer watches the watchers. This indigestion-inducing nested structure could possibly have worked had Hlousek and Wash attempted some sort of clever narrative leap-frogging, but it all just sits there like too much off-brand Halloween candy—bland, tasteless, and nauseating.
SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET wants you to have fun, but it doesn’t know how to bring it. The Chicago shot and cast production is obviously a labor of love for its makers, and it brings a reviewer no joy to admit that this ambitious indie is a dud. What irritates most is the attitude of the piece, given voice by Jamie, the audience’s gore-loving little representative, who (SPOILER) poisons her snobby babysitter’s hot cocoa for being an insufferable nag and refusing to understand why she loves the things she does. SKELETON’S IN THE CLOSET’s promotional material may call it “the 80s horror experience you’ve been dying to see,” but the thing is, it isn’t. Affection for something doesn’t make one an expert on it, and good films aren’t made on fandom alone. It’s the same sort of self-effacing elitism that TERRIFIER fell victim to as well: “I, as a fan, know what the audience wants, and if you don’t like it, you must not be a fan.” Here’s the thing. I get it. I just don’t think it’s well executed, and anyone looking for a trip to the Creature Features and Movie Macabres of the past will walk away similarly disappointed. SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET, with its Rob-Zombie-for-kids-style violence and its more-is-more-is-more storytelling made me into a Tina. I don’t want to be a Tina. I want to be a Jamie: entranced and delighted by a film that takes me back to Friday nights filled with salty popcorn and saltier horror hosts. If I’m mistaken, and this sloppy, abortive piece of “fan-service” is that, then pass me the cocoa for cripes sake.