London-born Paul Hart-Wilden is an accomplished filmmaker with an impressive resumé boasting dozens of credits. For close to three decades, he’s worn various hats, working behind the scenes as a director, producer, editor, and production manager. It is, however, his efforts as a screenwriter that I’ve spent so long admiring, in particular the script for a little-known slasher film called Skinner.
Panned by critics and horror fans alike, Skinner slipped into obscurity shortly after its initial release on VHS and Laserdisc by A-Pix (the distributor mostly known for releasing the Clint Howard cult classic Ice Cream Man). Some years later, the film received a quiet re-issue in a bare bones, heavily censored DVD edition by Simitar Entertainment, a company known for shelling out shoddy, slapped-together budget discs at a bargain price.
Starring Ted Raimi in the title role, Traci Lords, and Ricki Lake (!), Skinner tells the story of a Buffalo Bill-style serial killer who takes pleasure in removing the skin of his victims, then later slipping into it as one would a Halloween costume. Dressed from head to toe in the flesh of his mostly female victims, Dennis Skinner takes on the personas of those he kills; moving, talking, and behaving as they once had.
Traveling from town to town with a duffel bag fully stocked with an array of sharpened implements, Dennis has no idea that Heidi (strongly played by Lords), a scarred survivor hell bent on revenge, is hot on his trail.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this micro-budget gem and believe, even to this day, that (along with Dee Snider’s Strangeland and Kolobos) it is one of the most underrated and sadly overlooked horror films of the 1990s.
On a whim, I decided to look up the man behind the original script on Facebook. To my surprise and delight, he was very personable, approachable, and seemed genuinely appreciative of my fondness for the film, and more than willing to discuss it. When I suggested doing an interview for B-Movie Bonanza, he accepted without hesitation. Read on for a fascinating glimpse into the world of an independent filmmaker as he discusses, in great detail, his experiences in the movie industry, his personal life, and what it was like working on an underrated classic known as Skinner...
Did you grow up a fan of the horror genre? If so, what are some of your all-time favorite films and books?
Yes, always been a fan of horror. It’s been something I’ve been attracted to for as far back as I can remember. All-time favorite is tough call.
I grew up reading British pulp horror like Guy N. Smith, James Herbert, Graham Masterton and the obvious - Stephen King.
Cover art was always important in those days… I still don’t think anyone’s come up with better covers than the original Night of the Crabs or James Herbert’s The Rats.
Graham Masterton’s The Manitou is a great book but back in the day, Stephen King was the undisputed master… Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo. I cried the first time I finished reading [The] Dead Zone, I never wanted The Stand to end… I just loved being in that world so much. Pet Sematary was a great book and hard not to ignore when thinking about my favorites.. Difficult to split them, they’re all so good.
I’d read Poe and Lovecraft as well, but they were more about atmosphere. One of my guilty pleasure was a book called Cat, or maybe The Cat by Andrew Sinclair I think… About a panther loose in the British countryside. There just doesn’t seem to be the same level of material about these days… Or maybe there’s actually so much that things don’t stand out as much as they used to. I’d go hang out in book stores waiting for new books by Smith, or Herbert, or King, Campbell, Straub… It meant something, waiting for the next book to come out, trading them with friends, reading them together in school, comparing notes. I kinda miss all that.
Movies [are] even harder… There’s just so many. All-time favorite kinda makes you think of the ones you’ve been watching for a long time… So the ones going back into the dim distant past… There’s Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is certainly one of my favorite movies of all time. The Wicker Man - Robin Hardy’s version of course.
There’s the obvious… The Exorcist, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dawn of the Dead is great but I actually prefer Day… In the realm of zombies I do love me some Zombie Flesheaters (I know it’s just known as Zombie most places but it’ll always be Zombie Flesheaters to me). I have a soft spot for most of Fulci’s output… The Beyond, City of the Living Dead. I love a good werewolf movie and so have to include An American Werewolf and The Howling on any list of my favorites. This is so difficult. I mean, I can’t leave out my favorite directors… John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. What list of favorite movies would be complete without Videodrome, Scanners, Deadringers, Dead Zone, The Fly, Eastern Promises… And then there’s Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and one of the greatest films of them all… The Thing.
Definitely [two] of me all time favorites [are] Alien and Aliens. In fact, Alien was always my go-to answer when asked for my all-time favorite movie. I’m even not opposed to Alien 3 or Resurrection - they lost me at Alien vs Predator and the shitstorm that was Requiem… And Prometheus hasn’t won me back yet.
I guess one way to determine a favorite movie is how many times you watch it and so special mention has to go to Se7en and Silence of the Lambs. I watch them both every time they’re on TV… I’ll drive people crazy by watching them several times in a week, sometimes several times in a day if they’re on heavy rotation… And if they’re on channels with heavy censorship then I’ll stop watching, get out my DVD copies and watch those instead. I do the same thing with John Wick and so I guess I gotta put that on the list as well. I should probably stop there or I’ll just be reciting movie titles until the sun comes up.
Growing up in the UK, I’m sure obtaining some of these movies was no easy feat, what with the Video Nasties period, where video shops were regularly invaded by police. What are some of your memories of this time?
It’s funny you should say that. The whole Video Nasty thing is a bit weird from what I remember. There were definitely periods when it was harder to find some titles and yes, it was all a huge stupid overreaction, but at the same time it was a very… I dunno, a weird time.
It’s funny you should say that. The whole Video Nasty thing is a bit weird from what I remember. There were definitely periods when it was harder to find some titles and yes, it was all a huge stupid overreaction, but at the same time it was a very… I dunno, a weird time.
The first time I ever rented a video was actually from the local Off License (kind of the polite English version of a liquor store). There was a little rack of videos in the back of the store and I was able to rent a copy of Erasergead. But weirder than that: in the small town I grew up in, there was a shop on the high street that sold and rented TVs and that kind of stuff and they too decided to get into the video rental business and it was in the local high street TV rental shop that I actually was able to rent a copy of Cannibal Ferox. No joke. Like Rent-a-Center… you could just walk in as a kid and take out a copy of Cannibal Ferox. Those were the days.
There was actually a legitimate video store in the next town - called Videodrome, I think - and they had movies like Driller Killer, Zombie Flesheaters and all that good stuff.
So as much as I [was] aware that there was this whole thing called the Video Nasty and a public furore about such things, but it never seemed to get in the way of a good time.
Had you always dreamed of working in the entertainment industry?
I still dream about it. All the time. I think there’s two parts to that answer. Yes, I do still dream about it because it still means as much to me as it did before I was able to get in and I also think, once you do get in you don’t always notice that you’re in it or how far you’ve come, or not come. So yes, always dreamed about it and still do.
What was it like moving from London to Los Angeles? Was it total culture shock?
Not really a culture shock. I’d been traveling to LA for several years, looking for work, trying to make contacts; I’d go for a week, a couple of weeks. A month here, a month there. I think the longest I’d done in one stretch was six months, so I’d been coming for so long that it really wasn’t so much of a change to just make the move permanent and cut out all the travel.
I grew up watching American movies, American TV. I’d read American comics, listened to American bands. So there wasn’t that much to get used to. It was more a sense of wonder at actually being in the place you’re read and seen and heard so much about and is such a global con. I still feel that today, driving a round LA, hanging out, working on projects. It’s always said as joke to be living the dream but it is actually like that. I grew up wanting to work in movies, making movies in Hollywood. And here I am, doing just that. It doesn’t get much cooler.
Where were you personally and professionally around the time the original screenplay for Skinner was written?
Hmmm. Good question. Professionally, pretty much nowhere. I’d sold one script at the time that had been produced by the legendary Dick Randal. That was a whole education in low budget schlocky horror, so I guess that put into some kind of bracket of people who had actually sold a script and had it made. But I wasn’t really anywhere. Living Doll, the Dick Randall movie, wasn’t that good and hardly set the world on fire. Beyond writing, I was struggling to get any traction on the production side of the business. So I wasn’t really anywhere.
I was living in England and writing was the cheapest way of actually making something. In those days, there was none of the iPhone cameras, final cut, YouTube, and all the other toys people have to play with, so making a movie was tough. Not that it’s not tough today, but it was a whole different level of tough back then.
I was trying to get a leg up in the industry as a director and so with it being so difficult to actually make things, I decided to take the route of writing scripts in the hope someone would like them enough to allow me to direct them.
I’d tried it with Living Doll and got as far as someone being interested in making the movie, but not in letting me direct. So, I’d let that one go because I figured a produced screenplay would do me more good than an unproduced script.
On one of my many trips to Los Angeles, an old friend had introduced me to a producer along with trying to raise financing for the movie ourselves, but nothing came of it.
So nothing happened and I came back to England. I’m not even sure how long after that I got a call. It could have been months, maybe even a year or more. Anyway, the producer, Brad Wyman, contacted me and said “I’ve found the money for your film. There’s just one catch.”
And the catch was: the money came with a director. So, Brad offered me a choice. He said, “You can sell the script and we’ll get it made, or you can stick to your guns about directing it. But if you do that, then I’ve found you the money to make it, I won’t do it again.” So, the choice was kinda clear: get it made and hope for the best.
It’s important to understand how long these things take and what happens along the way. I’d written Skinner and had been trying to get it [made] for at least a couple of years in England before I even took it to the States to try and get it off the ground.
I remember I’d given up trying to get the movie made in the UK and was on one of my trips to LA. I was walking down Sunset Boulevard and I got a phone call from me mum and she says, “I was just listening to the radio and they were talking with an author about his book that is about someone who skins people, that sounds like your script.” I know, what kind of person tells their mum about shit like Ed Gein and scripts about skinning people? Well… I did.
So I stopped in my tracks and was like, “Oh great. So there’s a book about the same kind of thing. What’s it called? Maybe no one has heard of it.”
Well, I remember looking up at this huge billboard in front of me on Sunset and it couldn’t have happened more perfectly (or any worse, depending on your perspective). “Something of the Lambs,” my mum said. “Silence?” I asked, because I was staring up at a huge billboard with that iconic image of the deaths head moth.
So there [I was]: having written a script, having spent two or three years trying to get it off the ground, and here comes this bloody book and bloody movie that was kinda just like it.
And then it was [another] two years before Skinner was produced and then another year or so before it was released. So my little script with the great idea of someone dressing up in other people’s skin was presumed to be just a rip-off of [The] Silence of the Lambs, but such is life.
What inspired the story for the film?
Dunno about inspiration. I mean, I would always read anything horrific I could find. Murders, serial killers... I’d read newspaper reports, books, anything, so I was aware of Ed Gein and his horrible crimes. Having done a movie about necrophilia in Living Doll, you look for something else that would be a little boundary-pushing…and Ed certainly had some boundary-pushing hobbies. So, it was really just as simple as looking at the things I knew about, picking something I thought would be cool to explore in a story and trying to figure out the story dynamics to make it work.
Did the script go through many drafts? If so, what can you tell us about earlier incarnations of the screenplay?
Honestly? I can’t remember. I think Brad had some notes and I did something approximating a polish on the script I’d been trying to sell for several years, but I honestly can’t remember what they were.
I have no idea. I wasn’t involved in the production at all. I was living in London in the spare room of a house a bunch of my friends were renting. I’d split up with my girlfriend of the time and I remember I had this horrible fax machine. It was pretty cutting edge in those days, but embarrassingly dated by todays technological standards. It had that awful thermal paper, which is why I probably have so few records of the time, and worked via a phone line. So the producer’s office would call from LA and tell me that they’d be faxing me in a few minutes. So I’d have to hang up the phone, grab the fax machine, drag it out into the hall, plug it into the phone socket, and keep my fingers crossed that no one else in the house would want to use the phone until the fax had come through.
What do you remember about the film’s production? Did you pay many visits to the set?
No set visits, no nothing. I sent the script over, got a contract via fax, signed it, got a check via FedEx and that was it. They never called, they never wrote. They just went off and made the movie.
Did you spend time with members of the cast? What were they like?
See, those are the Hollywood dreams we all have. The reality is something a little different. I had no contact with the movie, cast, director, no one. I did actually have Ted Raimi reply to a tweet of mine some time last year, but that was about it.
Can you remember any interesting anecdotes or funny stories about the film’s production?
Ooh… I’m sure there are dozens of people better placed than me that could do that. In fact, in the years I’ve spent trying to track down the original source material of the movie, I’ve contacted a lot of people who were involved in the financing and making of the movie and without exception, every single reaction I got was a negative one. Accusations and allegations of dirty money and criminal ventures in the financing, people ripped off, people just generally unhappy with pretty much any involvement they had with the movie. It was actually quite sobering to think that my tiny dream of horror film stardom had actually been such a crappy experience for pretty much everyone involved.
So there’s plenty of stories about the movie, but funny? I’ve not come across one of those yet.
What can you tell us about director Ivan Nagy?
I think I met him once at a screening in Burbank before they finished the movie, but it was barely a shake of the hand or more than a nod of the head. That was about it.
What do you remember about seeing the film for the first time? Were you happy with the end result?
It was a tiny preview theatre I think in Burbank and it was just a small screening for the producer, director to take a look at progress. It wasn’t even the finished movie as far as I can remember. I think my reaction was pretty stunned. It’s not a great movie and there’s no worse time to see a movie than in a rough cut stage. You really need to learn how to view that stuff and understand where it was in the process. This was my first time being in any way involved in that sort of thing and it was a pretty painful experience. I think they changed editors right after that screening so I don’t think anyone was particularly happy with what they saw.
I’ve always had suspicions it may have been shot on video, but with 35mm lenses. Can you confirm this?
As far as I know, it was shot on 35mm. I found a 35mm workprint for the movie in the vault at Fotokem, so yes, it was a true 35mm film. In 1990 there wasn’t really much alternative.
What is your biggest qualm with the film as a whole?
Hmmm… That’s a tricky one. I think you’re on fairly dodgy ground to begin with any time you ask a writer how they feel about something that’s been made from their work. Like reading a book, when you write something, you have a fairly vivid image of how things look and sound and feel, but like all imaginings, it’s a perfect yet completely unrealistic notion. That’s the beauty of reading, the words on the page conjure up images in your head that are specific to you and work the way you want them to. When you take that ethereal notion and translate it to a physical thing like a movie then it exists in one very specific form. I think that probably about as convoluted and confusing and explanation as I can make it. Basically, you’re always likely to be less than satisfied with the end result.
Skinner had a very troubled birth. It was made in less than ideal circumstances from what I can gather and I’ll take my fair share of the blame. I was just a kid. I’d only sold one script before this. I’d had no formal training in writing, no mentor or anyone acting as quality control on my work. I’d write in isolation and then just send stuff out to try to sell it. So I wasn’t that good of a writer in those days and Skinner, if I’m honest, just isn’t that good of a script and so with that as a starting point, you’re always on rough ground.
It was a very low-budget movie and certainly could have been improved in many ways. but I’ll certainly say that no one else’s contribution was any more lacking than my own.
I think I said earlier, this was my first script sale to the US. I had all these high hopes that it meant something and that this would be the first steps in a magnificent ascendance through the industry to the dizzying heights of world renown and immense financial reward, but what you think is going to happen and what actually happens, often have pretty much nothing to do with each other.
I think the saddest thing is that there was definitely potential in the movie. They pulled together a very impressive cast for a movie with little or no money. I mean, Richard Schiff is in Skinner, he plays my favorite part. Ted [Raimi] did a good job as the lead. KNB did some awesome effects work. There’s a nugget of a decent idea in there somewhere. In all honesty, it’s not really much worse than a bunch of other terrible movies that actually did spawn careers or generate money and sequels but for whatever confluence of circumstances and bad luck, bad planning or whatever. It just didn’t happen for this movie.
It’s been well over 20 years since the production. Have you been in contact with any of the cast/crew after the film wrapped?
Perhaps the original script?
Like I said, Skinner was written in a time before the world was overtaken by computers. I think it might have been the first, or certainly one of the first scripts I wrote on a computer. That was a big leap forward for me. I used to write scripts in longhand and then had to spend a week typing them up so I had a master manuscript that i could make copies from.
I have a PDF copy of the script that I found on a floppy disc a few years ago, but at some point the original script files got lost. It’s the only version I’ve ever found. I have no record or memory of different versions or revisions. I don’t think I’ve even read the copy I found, so not sure how close it is to what ended up on screen. Maybe I should take a look at it one day.
The producer Brad was actually nice enough to send me a crew t-shirt from the production. It’s [hidden] away in some storage locker in the UK, so I’ll have to go back and dig it out. I’m guessing that since I got one, there were a bunch made for the rest of the cat and/or crew, but I’ve never seen another one or even heard anyone mention it.
It’s strange, but thanks to that great resource called the Internet, I actually found someone selling on eBay a Skinner medical kit which seems to have been some kind of promotional item made by one of the companies involved in the movie. I’ve only ever seen one of them, so don’t have any idea how widespread they were, but like the t-shirt. There has to be more than one. These things are Highlanders.
Whether there were any other Skinner-related goodies, I’ve no idea. The French and Japanese cover art for the movie is pretty good but I’ve no idea if it’s possible to get hold of copies. Someone must have made it at one time, but like the movie, it’s out there hiding…watching…waiting…
What can you tell us about some of your other works, and your experiences as a director?
Well, there’s been another two movies made from scripts I’ve written: Alone, which was produced in the UK just before I moved to California and Wolf Town, which I co-wrote with Asabi Lee. I wrote a book of short stories [called Broken Bones], which people can pick up [on] Amazon. I kinda dropped out of writing for a while. It had always been intended as a means to an end to get me into full-time directing. When things didn’t quite pan out like i’d planned, I diverted my energies into working in production to see if I could take a different shortcut to where I wanted to go. But the truth you learn as you go through life is that there aren’t really that many shortcuts.
I directed a couple of short films, Meredith and The Pack, that were written by Rob Bola and formed part of a short anthology movie called Obits. We shot them out in Indiana and premiered them at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Hollywood. I did a bit of directing on the TV show 1,000 Ways to Die. Coming from a horror background, working on a show that allowed me to participate in killing eight people a week for the better part of a year was one of those jobs you just feel very lucky to get.
What are you working on these days?
I‘m still looking for directing opportunities and pushing projects. Asabi and I have a couple of scripts that have been getting some interest and we’re hopeful that least one of them sees the light of day before too long. We have a short film idea that we’re developing and expect to produce before the end of the year that I’ll direct. There’s really no shortage of scripts we need to write and each one of those will hopefully either be an opportunity to direct, or at least bring us one step closer.
I’m [also] working on a feature film with an English producer friend George Pavlou. He directed the first two Clive Barker adaptations, Underworld and RawHead Rex, so we’ve always had a great mutual interest in horror. The project is [called] Strange X [and] it has some quite bizarre ideas behind it. [It] will be an interesting project to pull off.
I’ve been toying with the idea of a sequel to Wolf Town for a few years. I go back and forth on whether it’s something to pursue, or if the movie should just be left alone. Like I said, I go back and forth on the idea. There’s some interest out there so if I can get enough ducks in a row to make it happen then I think it’d be fun to do. There’s a lot that can be improved upon from the first one, so it’ll be interesting to see where we can take it. We’re working on a couple of scripts at the moment and need to clear the decks to shoot the short, so it’s a question of finding the time to devote to making things happen.
What do you think about a Skinner remake?
Well, much like Wolf Town, I go back and forth on the idea or revisiting old territory. When I set out on the quest to uncover the original Skinner materials to get it re-released, I did have this idea of actually just taking the original script and shooting a contemporary version of the movie to be released back to back with the original and see how they stack up together. Then I thought maybe trying to do some kind of a sequel, leave the original intact and just see where the story could be taken.
And then just to prove there’s no shortage of ideas about flogging a dead horse, I did kind of think at some point that there was another movie out there to be written to act as the sort of unofficial trilogy that started with Living Doll, went through Skinner, and ended up with… who knows? Necrophilia, skinning… Where to next? Anyway, the next movie was Alone, which was it’s own kind of mess, but as I looked back on it I did see some semblance of a thread of continuity through the first three films. If you look hard enough—maybe really, really hard—you can just about see the notion of trying to fit in as a thread that runs through them. In Living Doll, Howard is just looking to be normal and get himself a girlfriend like everyone else. In Skinner, Dennis literally tries to be like everyone else by actually dressing up in them. In Alone, Alex really just wants to have the same kind of “normal” life that everyone else does. It’s just that in the process of dating, people die.
Hmmmm… Not sure if it’s been a lucky search so far. I’ve been at it personally for about five or six years and have not been successful in terms of finding what we actually require, which is the original 35mm negative or a 35mm print of the movie.
The closest I got was discovering a mute workprint in the vaults at Fotokem in Hollywood. [This] had me going for a minute, thinking I’d cracked the whole case. While it’s very interesting and brought back many memories [of] the assorted post-production crew, [it isn’t] suitable for anyone because it has no sound, and [it] would cost too much to laser clean [in order] to be viable as an optical source.
So, while I thought I had it, what I actually had was not very much at all.
I did uncover a bunch of other stuff during [my] investigations, mainly done online. Probably the most surprising thing I discovered along the way was how far and wide the movie had been released way back in the day. I found some nice cover art for the [French edition], but the company [who] released the movie is no longer in business and so proved to be a dead end. Other [artwork] I discovered online showed the movie had releases in South America, Argentina, and possibly also Uruguay.
Someone pointed me in the direction of a very low-grade images which seemed to insinuate that the movie had been released in Hong Kong under the title Skin Person Devil, which is a pretty cool translation, but with limitations of language and only a few pictures to go on, I haven’t been able to find any more information on that.
In the last year I discovered the cover art for a Japanese release of the movie. Again, the company that put it out doesn’t seem to be in business any more and my Japanese language skills just don’t exist so I’ve no way of finding out more.
In a way, the discovery of these different releases does give me hope because the French language version, the Japanese version, and the weird Skin Person Devil release must have been made from some master materials. I’ve not been able to track down any of these releases other than the cover art, so can’t speak to whether they are similar to the original uncut US VHS release or were based on the crappy US DVD release.
All of [this] means [that] the search goes on, and probably on and on. I’d love to get my hands on a copy of the French VHS, the Japanese version, and especially [learn] more about Skin Person Devil, so if anyone knows anything about them, or most importantly, has any clues about the whereabouts of the original materials, then please let me know.
If anyone out there has these materials, where might they contact you?
I set up a page on Facebook to document my efforts [in finding] the movie in case I forget where I’ve been looking or who I’ve spoken to. So they can message me there or hit me up on Ywitter @paulhartwilden or Instagram @paulhartwilden.
I get worried that these things can just end up disappearing forever, like The Wicker Man, or the majority of the works of Lumiere. But then every so often, you hear about someone digging up lost reels from King Kong or other movies that have been presumed lost forever, so you just cling to the hope that someone out there knows something.
Many thanks to Paul Hart-Wilden for being so generous with his time and so open about his experiences. It’s been a fascinating journey throguh the trials of an independent filmmaker—and an educational one, too. For more information about Paul’s works, please visit his official website and his IMDb filmography.