"It's just meat."
Hey, guys. Scott's experiencing technical difficulties at the moment–something to do with his dog (seriously!)–so he asked me to step in for this week's episode, "Skin And Bones." It's a purely temporary arrangement, but while I'm here, I plan on stealing all the loose change I can find, making a bunch of long distance calls, and ordering at least a full day's worth of pay-per-view; wouldn't want Scott to come back and not feel missed, y'know?
I'd also planned on raiding the fridge, but after watching "Skin," I think my appetite may be gone for a while.
The pitch: things are not well on the Edlund Ranch. Grady Edlund went into the mountains with a group of men ten days ago, and there's been no word; his wife, Helena (Molly Hagan) is close to despair, his two sons, Derek and Tim, are angry and confused, and Grady's brother Rowdy (John-Pyper Ferguson) finds himself caught between them, worried for his brother's safety while at the same time frustrated at what he considers to be Grady's inexperience and immaturity. There's all sorts of subtext a'bubbling, but before anybody can blow too many secrets, a skeletal figure in a parka stumbles back onto the property. Grady's returned–what's left of him, anyway.
The doctor says he needs food and liquids, but Grady refuses to eat the stews his wife and sons keep bringing him. Which isn't to say he isn't hungry. There's a look in his eyes that wasn't there before, a hateful intensity that makes every trip to his room an ordeal. It gets worse when Grady licks Helena's arm while she's trying to feed him; he tells her "It tastes good." Then somebody half-devours a horse one night, and while Rowdy investigates, Grady watches from his room, grinning his skull's grin.
It's not hard to see what's going on, and to the episode's credit, there isn't much time wasted on people denying the obvious. Once the family's Indian buddy gets a whiff of the situation, he starts talking about the Wendigo, and nobody bothers to contradict him. Clearly, something's off with Grady. It makes you wonder what happened to the men he went into the mountains with; and then Grady himself tells Helena the truth. He was just so hungry. And the voice in his head was just so sweet…
"Skin" is a bit reminiscent of the dark comedy/horror flick Ravenous, a terrific picture about a group of men in the wilderness who start getting really aggressive about the whole "you are what you eat" philosophy. There's the same isolation, some of the same set-up, but the comedy is largely stripped away; in its place is the dynamic of a family well on its way to implosion even before ancient evil gets involved. The way the Wendigo, by using Grady's form, exploits those internal pressures reminded me some of the second story in Bava's Black Sabbath, about a vampire creature that only targets the most beloved of its formerly human self. The problems with the Edlund clan are never overplayed, but always present; when Grady goes so far as to accuse that his wife and brother's betrayal gave him good reason to be vulnerable to invading spirits, it's a nastily plausible suggestion.
Grady is played by the whisper-thin Doug Jones, and his work is one of the episode's biggest strengths. Familiar to genre fans as Abe Sapien in Hellboy 2, the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth, and the guy with the crescent moon head in those old McDonald's commercials, Jones' naturally emaciated-looking body is its own special effects; when highlighted by make-up and prosthetics, his appearance becomes almost unbearable to watch. His performance ranges from empathetic to gleefully cruel, and while he occasionally "shows his top" as the saying goes, he's always entertaining, and never distractingly campy. Early scenes with him lying in bed watching his family are painfully tense because no matter how hard the others try and pretend, there's no way that someone who looks that visibly wrong could ever be safe. There's no question he'll go on the attack, and whenever someone comes within arm's reach, you start wincing in advance for the moment when the monster finally breaks free.
The first half hour of "Skin" is well-done suspense basics. The show is expertly paced, always a problem with anthology series, and the feeling of dread rarely lets up. But after a confrontation between Grady and his guilt-ridden brother, there's a shift in tone, and it's here where things really take off. See, Grady manages to best Rowdy (even though Rowdy had the gun), and he's still hungry–but he's tired of raw meat. So after talking Helena down from shooting him (slightly implausible, but I'll go with it), he forces her into the kitchen and demands she makes him a stew, one with a very special ingredient. Grady thumps Rowdy's corpse onto the table, hands Helena a butcher knife, and demands she cut him up. Which she does, and she cooks the parts she cuts and serves Grady up a bowl of fresh, hot brother; but Grady, it turns out, doesn't like eating alone.
"Skin" has a bit of a shrug for an ending; you get the sense that writers Drew McWeeney and Scott Swan didn't know how to top that kitchen scene, and didn't bother trying. You can't really blame them. Watching Helena choke down bits of Rowdy–the man she really loved, the actual father of her children–to distract Grady long enough for her son to open the gun cabinet not ten feet away from where they're sitting, is a high-water mark I can't imagine improving on. The fact that there's no attempt at a lame kicker ending makes for the perfect final note.
—I really, really didn't expect that to not suck. The show isn't always this good, is it?
—Forgot to mention, but the Indian ranch-hand goes the way of all ethnic sidekicks. But it's his own damn fault, really; a hand-axe against a supernaturally strong creature of the night is never a good call.
—"Skin and Bones" was directed by Larry Fessenden, whose previous directorial work includes a movie called Wendigo. Up next, I Eat Your Skin: the Musical, and a series of cook-books with Rachel Ray.