Hunting for ‘Skinner’ – Writer Paul Hart Wilden fleshes out the search for a lost horror movie

How did you first get involved with the project?

I’d written a movie called Living Doll. I’d managed to get the script into the hands of infamous film producer Dick Randall who was living and working in London. He was quite taken with the script and within half an hour of meeting him had agreed to buy it and make it into a movie. Living Doll had been a ‘study of the problems of unrequited love in teenage youth’ as I used to explain it to people or, as other people had said, it’s a necrophilia movie. Which meant that for movie #2 I needed a new angle to pursue. We’d been through the serial killer boom of the 1980s, the world was changing as was the world of the horror movie. I’d read about Ed Gein, H. H. Holmes, real-life cannibals, and all sorts… so I had my idea, I wrote the script. Now, like with the previous stack of papers, all I needed to do was go out, meet someone, have them buy it and another notch on the filmmaking bedpost would be mine.

Can you tell us a little about how Skinner was first released? Did it go into cinemas or onto home video?

Skinner was made back in the days when there was only one medium for film – 35mm. So, the hope (at least in my head) had been that at some point the movie would be finished and released upon the world via various movie theatres. But the path out into the world wasn’t smooth. For various reasons the movie got mired in the ‘straight-to-video’ world of the 90s a couple years after it was produced, so any real attention the movie had was cold by the time it hit the streets.

This was Ted Raimi’s first or second movie as a leading man and even his brother’s Evil Dead wasn’t enough to generate the kind of interest you’d probably get today in similar circumstances. Traci Lords move to ‘respectable’ acting was still very much direct-to-video faire that wasn’t mainstream. Even Ricki Lake’s daytime TV show and the John Waters connection weren’t enough to bring in either an audience or notoriety – especially as even to this day I think she pretty much has refused to acknowledge or speak about the movie. Richard Schiff was just beginning his career. Why it never really caught the eye of Fangoria (the one real outlet for horror movie publicity in those days) is still a mystery to this day. It really is one of life’s great mysteries as to why it never seemed to gain any kind of traction at all. To add to the weight of disadvantage, by the time the various parties involved managed to get the movie out to the public, a movie called The Silence of the Lambs had been released to worldwide acclaim, so Skinner was seen by most people as just a shameless attempt to ride someone else’s coattails.

But come out it did… on good old VHS tapes. The original US distributor seemed to consider the 10,000 or so units they shipped a decent amount for a movie ‘of this type’. It then made its way to Laserdisc and then onto DVD. The people then responsible for putting the movie out into the world on the new-fangled DVD format either didn’t care or didn’t seem to notice that the version they put out was not only heavily censored but also of such atrocious technical quality that it rendered the movie almost unwatchable. Then it appeared on a weird two movie DVD with another underperforming project called The Surgeon. There was the initial US release, then it appeared in a French-language version, South American iterations in both Spanish and Portuguese, a version from somewhere in the Czech Republic, a Japanese release, a version in Hong Kong under the title of Skin Person Devil (still my favourite) and a seemingly bootlegged PAL version in Australia that I still can’t find the origin of.

At what point did Skinner become a ‘lost film’?

I guess in some ways it became a ‘lost film’ pretty much from the moment I signed a contract and turned over the rights for my script to be made into a movie. Not wishing to sound trite or flippant, whatever confluence of circumstances that lead to the creation of the film and its subsequent journey out into the world, everything just came together in a perfect storm of events that meant it disappeared from the zeitgeist.

I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be the ‘next big step’ on my career path and was more of a big fucking stumble… so the fact that barely anyone saw it or knew about it was in some ways a bit of a relief as I could retreat with my ego a little battered and hope to regroup and try again (hopefully) without too much residual damage.

But time moves on and as we get older things take on a different aspect as we look back at them. I watched a documentary series on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) about the restoration and preservation of movies and how many of the classics no longer existed in any physical form. I read a newspaper article about some scenes from King Kong turning up in a garbage dumpster in New Zealand… and one of my favourite movies The Wicker Man is legendary in forever being incomplete because scenes were cut out and the negatives dumped in a freeway construction site… and then it suddenly struck me… what if Skinner just disappeared off the face of the Earth. Would anyone notice? Would anyone care?

And at that point, I had to re-evaluate my own relationship to the movie. What I had turned my back on was a part of my growth as a writer, it was a part of my personal history in the movie industry and whether the end result had turned out to be a pile of garbage or a misunderstood classic or just a noble experiment that hadn’t come out as intended… it had begun from an honest place. I had wanted to write a horror movie that would be part of what we all know and love as part of the history of horror and the end result deserved at least someone caring enough about it to make sure it didn’t just disappear from existence.

Suppose that shitty DVD transfer or the unwatched Laserdisc in my closet were the only remaining evidence that this film ever existed and the only (apart from a VHS copy that the dog used as a chew toy) physical copies of the movie.

So, all of this made me realize… there had to be a 35mm negative of this movie and at least one 35mm print somewhere. The only real question was… where?

When was the film re-discovered and how?

I’d maintained a vague social media/email type friendship with the film’s producer and his assistant from the time and so figured they’d be the best place to start with any inquiries. The producer, Brad Wyman, had nothing to add regarding the current ownership or whereabouts of the movie other than the company name that appeared on the IMDB listing.

I contacted Image Entertainment who had produced the Laserdisc version of Skinner but their only response was that they didn’t keep track of where the rights reverted to once they lapsed. Cinequanon were the original sales company but they were no longer in existence and the owner, Daniel Sales, had died some years ago – but I was able to track down one of the former associates who advised me to contact a certain ‘FD’ who was responsible for handling the affairs of Daniel Sales and so might be able to shed some light on where ‘things’ might have gone after the passing of the owner and the company. I contacted him and although he initially said he did not know of the whereabouts of any elements or ownership – subsequent pestering on my part got him to admit there was a storage unit that might have something inside and that the next time he visited it, he would report back about what he might find. Subsequent ‘pestering’ only brought up that he was ‘still looking into the matter’.

I then got a response from JK (one of the editing assistants). He suggested I contact a company called Crest Digital where he remembered dropping off a workprint at some time in the past. I contacted Crest in Hollywood and would you believe it – they had a copy of the movie – a box containing 10 reels of… something. When I opened the box, inside were the ten white boxes, each containing a reel of 35mm film. But it was a workprint. So after all these years, all I’d come up with was a picture but no sound? Yes, it seemed so. But was it even the complete picture?  And did the box of workprint reels contain the fully intact version of the movie or a censored and incomplete version?

In 2012 I got a Facebook message from Dave Gregory at Severin Films. ‘This is DG, can you give me a call about Skinner. I was out drinking with JK and he told me you were looking for it.’ It turned out that David had been looking for the elements for 4 or 5 years, having been contracted by a company who owned the rights to the movie to put together some BTS stuff.

DG gave me the name of a company and a person – and a phone number. I contacted the company and it turned out they owned the rights to Skinner.

So… suddenly my 35mm workprint looked like a highly valuable asset which in conjunction with the sound from an existing video master… might just about be the makings of a newly minted version of Skinner. But when the workprints were examined we heard that ‘it’s full of grease pencil marks and debris and tape splices. I could have it sonically cleaned and then do a test transfer to better gauge the quality. Otherwise, the colour and condition are very good but it’s an untimed element so grading will take twice as long. I’m not sure if it’s the uncut version either but once I find time to get to the other reels I’ll know more. In the meanwhile, never give up the search for the negative!”

So once again, the curse of ‘Skinner’ had struck… The 35mm negative had to be out there somewhere, even a 35mm print of the film would be something, it was just a matter of tracking it down before it vanished forever.

Thanks to Facebook page I met a guy called David Austin. It turned out he not only knew the movie but was actually a fan of it, probably not too much of a stretch to say a very big fan. David had been down this road before and had actually been involved in finding elements of movies that had supposedly been lost. So we’d talk about where Skinner might be or how to go find it and I’d talk him through all the efforts I’d made over the years and something kept sticking in the back of my head every time we spoke.

I’ve no idea why, but I just couldn’t shake the notion that a certain person with the initials FD (remember him from earlier) had more to tell than they would let on. I had no proof. I hadn’t spoken to the man in over a decade and when I had, he’d promised me that if he ever remembered or came across anything, he’d let me know… surely that decade of silence only meant one thing. I couldn’t shake the idea that he’s somehow the key to all this, but he’d been as much of a dead-end as every other avenue I’d tried.

David said: ‘Just let me speak to him. I’ve done this before. If he has something, I know what it’ll take to make him give it up.’  Like I said, this had been more than ten years of fruitless effort, I wasn’t even sure if I could or should ever find what I was looking for… but why not take the easy option and let someone else do some lifting at least to see. I dug out the contact phone number I had for FD, not knowing it if even worked or to be honest if he was even still alive, and handed it off to David.

David called back. ‘I spoke to him. He’s got it and we’ll have it next week.;

Me: ‘Excuse me?’

David: ‘It’s done. He’ll ship it to where you want it to go.’

Me: ‘Are you serious? What did you do? What did you say?’

David: ‘I’ve dealt with people like this before. I know what he wanted.’

Me: ‘And what might that be?’

David: ‘Money.’

And that ladies and gentlemen is how we’re now sitting here with a beautiful 4k restoration of Skinner. That’s honestly all it took, one of the earliest connections I tried turned out to be the key all along. To this day, I have no idea what was said in that phone call or how much David actually handed over – but whatever it was and however much it took, it worked. I never even got to see what was in the discovery. It was shipped directly from wherever FD had it to the company in Illinois who ‘owned’ the distribution rights.

We found Skinner, managed to dig up the original camera negative and got it into the hands of the people who needed it and they put together a beautiful 4k restoration of the movie that became available to one and all. It was a long journey, but the work is done; over 25 years since the movie was originally made and over 10 years since I first began efforts to try and track it down and bring it back from the dead.

So now we’re here, I want to give my immense thanks to all the people I met in the course of this journey and who contributed to tracking it down and ensuring that what at one time looked like a lost cause turned out to be anything but.

How do you feel now that fans can now see Dennis Skinner’s horrendous crimes in this 4K restoration?

Time and distance lend an entirely different perspective to all aspects of life – and so it is with my relationship with Skinner. All my disappointment and resentment at dreams dashed, ambition unfulfilled has gone away and I have a much more mature perspective on things. It was quite something to sit in a movie theatre in Hollywood, beside Ted Raimi, with a sold-out audience to watch the movie.

The work that went into producing the 4K release is quite something. The movie looks great and more importantly it sounds great. That was the biggest revelation to me when watching it again for the first time in a quarter-century… you can actually hear the music and get a whole new appreciation for the work that Keith Arem (Contagion) put into the movie which adds a great depth to the film and is something I wish we’d all been able to appreciate way back in the day.

I’m grateful for the people I’ve met along the way as part of the rediscovery of the film, the friendships and connections that have been born out of the journey.

So yeah, it’s all good.

101 presents Skinner on dual format Blu-ray and DVD now

Amazon: https://amzn.to/363exlJ

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