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Skeletons
(1996)
 

Director: David Decoteau    
Cast:
Ron Silver, James Coburn, Dennis Christopher


What is it about small towns that inspires stories about horror?  I suppose it's a combination of isolation - such small towns are always far from any kind of safety - and that it's easier to keep deep dark secrets and conspiracies with a small group of people. Skeletons doesn't break any of these conventions, though to tell the truth I would have been disappointed if it had taken place in a friendly town - much harder to build any mystery. And besides, the movie itself is a well-done chiller, being unconventional in a different way than usual, which I'll get to later.

Suffering a heart attack shortly after seeing the battered woman he wrote about murder her abusive husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Crane (Silver) decides that it would be good for him and his family if they left New York City and spent a year elsewhere. They decide on the New England town of Saugatuck, and drive there, with Peter's wife still wearing those godawful earrings she wore earlier.

The town immediately welcomes them with open arms. Linda the real estate agent greets them as they pull up to their home. Frank Jove (Coburn) from next door is a local journalist familiar with Peter's work who instantly becomes friends with the family. Mrs. Galloway is a great teacher for son Zack. After church the next day, the family meets Mayor Harley Dunbar (Paul Bartel), and Reverend Carlyle (Christopher Plummer), whose family helped found the town hundreds of years ago - all nice people. It seems too good to be true, but why complain? So what if the townspeople are and act like folks you'd only find in a 50s small-town TV show? So what if the town looks like the Warner Brothers back lot? So what if the area out of the town had that identifiable covered-bridge-over-the-river-slightly-wooded area that you've seen in hundreds of TV shows (credits also thank Walt Disney's Golden Oaks Ranch)? It's a damn perfect place to live.

Shortly after, Peter's peace is interrupted by a visit from a woman asking for his help. She tells of her gay son Jim (Christopher) being arrested for killing his lover. He's surprised to suddenly hear of this, but is initially reluctant to get involved in any kind of investigative reporting. After some coaxing, he decides to look into it a little. Looking at Jim's house, he is shocked to see it heavily vandalized by homophobic graffiti, and is also shocked that Frank or the local newspaper hasn't reported on the case. Frank claims that "people here don't want to hear about such things," and that his editor put pressure on him not to write about, but he secretly gives murder scene pictures to Peter. Peter then talks to Jim in his jail cell, who strongly denies that he was the killer. After all this, Peter is intrigued enough to decide that even if he can't resolve the case, it will make a good article.

But soon afterwards, things turn ugly. Peter is scorned all over town. His son Zack is unfairly punished by his teacher for nothing, and is later jumped and beaten by several students. A burning cross is placed on the family's front lawn one night. Peter is worried enough to buy a shotgun (in a very funny scene), but it doesn't help against the harassment. Still, he keeps working on his investigation.

Other screenplays would have Peter eventually discover the townspeople are controlled by an alien force. Or the townspeople are all androids a la The Stepford Wives. Or underneath the city there's a huge installation producing or keeping some technical marvel. Skeletons ignores such ideas to come up with an explanation that,  though somewhat unlikely, still has many of its roots in believability. Though the secret would be very hard to pull off, it still could have happened in a real small town. Certainly more likely than androids or alien forces. Because the movie is more believable, I was much more interested in what was going to happen. Events don't happen out of the blue to make the screenplay more exciting, but happen as believable consequences for what happened before. As well, the Crane family is both likable and believable; they're smart, but they make mistakes like everyone else. Sometimes their mistakes are dumb, but these mistakes still remain believable. They know what's right and wrong, but are not always able to have or make things their way. You root for the family, and hope that they will triumph over their obstacles, because you'll have no idea if they will win out at the end or not.

Performances by everyone are excellent; James Coburn gives the best performance, giving off his suave charm and soothing voice to steal every scene. Dennis Christopher, an underrated actor, has only two scenes and sits through them, but manages to make a memorable character. Christopher Plummer picks up another low-budget-movie-role paycheck, though doesn't treat such a role with any underperformance. Unfortunately, near the end of the movie he has an unintentionally funny line that ranks up there with Night of the Lepus' memorable quote of "There's a herd of killer rabbits coming this way!"

Technical aspects of the movie are superb, with the movie only showing signs of its low budget in several shots near the end of the movie. The end credits reveal that the movie was recorded in theatrical Dolby Stereo (and THX). Combined with the fact that this widescreen-filmed movie has some very awkward pan-and-scan clips, I wonder if this was originally intended for theatrical release.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: The Rivals, The Silencers, The Klansman

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