Imagine if those musical geniuses The Residents attended a film school run by Frank Henenlotter and John Waters. Now, imagine that for their doctoral thesis, they did a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The result would probably be very close to Skinned Deep. I love The Residents, Henenlotter, Waters and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM), so I was an easy target for this film. However, note that you should approach Skinned Deep with caution directly proportional to how familiar with you are with (and how admirable you are of) those artists (and artworks). This is not a "normal" or "high gloss" production by any stretch of the imagination. It frequently resembles those artists' impassioned rejection of established artistic standards. If you're not attuned to the style, if you're not a fan of rejecting standards in that way (including the standard set forth by the "cult of originality"), if you think that Interview with the Vampire (1994), say, is the sole recent pinnacle of horror films and should be emulated stylistically, Skinned Deep is likely to just seem to you like a crappy, clichéd film with bad acting and questionable technical elements. For me, it's frequently pure genius instead.
The core idea of the film is the same as TCM and many other unofficial "remakes", or "reimaginings", including recent ones like Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Basically, a group of "innocent" individuals (this time a family out for a vacation in the mountains of the western U.S.) has a problem while driving through the boonies. They make it to an odd country store/diner, where they're lured to an even odder home. They run into the even odder rest of the family, who invite them to eat cannibal food (this step is optional, but frequently present, as it is here), and who then engage in some combination of kidnapping/killing/torturing the group of innocents, just for the hell of it, basically, but maybe also because they're getting low on meat. Writer/director/producer/loom-operator/cobbler Gabriel Bartalos also throws in a couple elements not usually found in these films, such as the hilarious septuagenarian biker gang, which becomes a major subplot in the climax.
Although some people are sure to complain that this is "just a rip-off of TCM", I think that is misguided at this point in time (if it was ever guided). Genres and subgenres arise through (often conscious) repetitions and variations of elements found in influential precursors. The transition from "rip-off" to "genre" is an ambiguous one in the public consciousness, but could be said to be correlated to the number of "rip-offs" (which are seen as negative) that accumulate. Once there are enough, it becomes a "genre" (which is seen as positive, or at least non-negative). In this respect, it somewhat resembles the "heap paradox" of logic/philosophy. By this point, there are more than enough TCM-like films for it to be considered a legitimate subgenre. The TCM-orientation of Skinned Deep should seem no more negative than, say, the Dracula-orientation of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), or the Ten Little Indians-orientation of Identity (2003).
Instead, that Skinned Deep is a TCM film enhances it instead, just as any genre orientation for any film does. It situates it in a shared (with the audience) system of signifiers and archetypes that create depth while allowing the filmmaker(s) to concentrate on subtleties and the finer points of style. A lot of impact arises through the ways in which a work differs from the genre. This is no different in Skinned Deep than in well-respected (and deservedly so) artworks such as Igor Stravinsky's Mass, or Francois Boucher's Toilet of Venus, which are examples of fine-grained subgenre works in music and painting, respectively.
Bartalos has created a bizarre concatenation of moods and styles here. Amazingly, they mesh with nary a problem, despite the fact that he transitions on a dime from serious, disturbing scenes of violence and gore to hilarious, surreal scenes such as one featuring of an antagonist freak running naked through crowded city streets. The freaks in Skinned Deep are one of the best collections I've seen in a TCM film, as good as Rob Zombie's Firefly family in House of 1000 Corpses. I especially loved Warwick Davis, who is delightfully campy here. But I have a thing for midgets in films. They almost always bring my score up a point. The costume design for "The Surgeon General" (he's on the DVD cover art) was excellent and somewhat reminiscent of "Dr. Satan" in Zombie's film. Of course, the costume design for Brian/"Brain" was wonderfully, sublimely ridiculous, as was the concept and effects for "The Creator".
The cinematography is as interesting, varied and frequently non-traditional as the moods of the film. There is a lot of well-executed hand-held work, and Bartalos has a Brian Eno-ish knack for capitalizing on "mistakes", which I love. A number of times, weird reflections and lens haze end up creating extremely effective atmosphere. Not leaving tradition completely behind, Bartalos even has a lot of beautiful scenery shots, including passing Joshua trees (I love Joshua trees). And the score is superb and unusual throughout--just check out the bizarre music that enters with the motorcycle gang; it organically grows from the sounds of the engines.
The effects, as well as the production design, were also excellent. Gorehounds should be more than happy. The production design often gives Skinned Deep an extremely dark Alice in Wonderland feel, which is helped by Karoline Brandt's performance as Tina. Of course, many of the performances in the film are questionable by any kind of normal criteria, but for me, they worked superbly. Films like this shouldn't have performances like The Merchant of Venice (2004); it would ruin the gritty, alternate, psycho-world atmosphere. And if all of that's not enough for you, there's even a cameo from Famous Monsters of Filmland founder Forrest J. Ackerman!