Friday, October 25, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #101: SKINS (1988)

If you look up the word prolific in the dictionary, you’ll probably see a picture of the gentleman to the left, director Armand Mastroianni.  Since his feature debut HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (1980), the New York native has worked non-stop in the film industry with 40+ features and a dozen television series on his filmography.  While readers of our blog will know him mostly for his horror efforts – the aforementioned HE KNOWS…, THE KILLING HOUR (1982), THE SUPERNATURALS (1986), and CAMERON’S CLOSET (1988) – he has worked in virtually every genre.  Like an old school craftsman, Mastroianni embraced change and enjoyed the challenge as he jumped from genre to genre.  In fact, it was a viewing of the action-revenge thriller DOUBLE REVENGE (1988) that initially got me on the hunt of SKINS.

Equaling the man’s abundant work is his generosity.  Within a day of my first contacting Mastroianni about SKINS, we were talking for hours about his career.  Within a week I had a package of nearly a dozen of his movies for me to watch.  So it came as no surprise when Armand was not only open to talking about SKINS, but that he was more than willing to help put me in touch with the pair of screenwriters, Ed Polgardy and Dale Schneck, he had worked with in developing this project.  It did, however, come as a surprise when I suddenly had a copy of the 25-year-old screenplay in my inbox.  Over the next few months, all three men were incredibly gracious with their time as they filled me in on their one-that-got-away.  So please join me below as I peel back the layers on the making (and non-making) of SKINS.

The first public announcement regarding SKINS came on December 10, 1986 with the following small blurb in Variety: “Dale Schneck, Edward Polgardy and Armand Mastroianni have scripted the horror feature "Skins," planned for filming by Heritage Entertainment with Mastroianni helming.”  The trio had actually met in 1982 when Mastroianni was told about Schneck and Polgardy by his agent and he found the duo hilarious.  Schneck had actually been Polgardy’s manager for a period, before they decided to start writing screenplays together.  Mastroianni found them to be a productive bunch and knew they would eventually write something together.

That opportunity presented itself shortly thereafter in the most unusual of places: TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE. Mastroianni secured a directing gig on what would soon be one of the most beloved 1980s anthology shows, directing the third episode – “Pain Killer” starring Farley Granger – of the debut season.  “We actually started SKINS as a potential TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episode,” Mastroianni explains. “I came to Ed and Dale and was chatting with them and said, ‘Jeez, why don’t we get together and write something for TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE?’ It started to generate this story.”

“We had some springboards that we came up with for TALES,” Polgardy concurs.  “There was one about a meat locker called ‘Cold Storage.’  And SKINS was one of those.  We had sent them into [TALES script consultant] Tom Allen and he got sick after that.  And we decided we didn’t want that one story to go without doing something with it.”

All three men agreed that their concept behind SKINS warranted further expansion.  Not only was it a fascinating premise (demons from inner earth that wear human skins to blend into society), but it proved to be the antithesis of what the horror genre had devolved into by the early ‘80s.  “All three of us wanted to make a high-concept horror story,” Schneck recalls, “something radically different from the FRIDAY THE 13th sort of kill-the-teenagers genre.  Our research uncovered a demonic creature with his mythic origins in the Middle Ages.  The creature historically was covered in sores and scabs, and went around in the shadows of society covered in animal skins, thus the title. We decided to resurrect that creature into contemporary life.”

“We wanted to go back to something of a more classic creature film,” Polgardy says.  The group retreated to the Pocono Mountains, where they bounced ideas and concepts off each other.  When they emerged they had a feature length horror script that took influence from sources as diverse as Don Siegel’s classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) to Stephen King’s novel SALEM’S LOT.  The screenplay sets the tone right away with a cover page that evocatively describes the history of their unique creatures, the Eurynomes.

SKINS script opening (click to enlarge) 
© Mastroianni, Polgardy, and Schneck (1988, 2013)

Writers Mastroianni, Schneck, and Polgardy
The action of SKINS takes place during October in the small New England town of Raubsville, where Chambers Furrier Warehouse – run by mysterious new resident David Chambers and his underling Charlie Jenkins – is one of the main employers.  Protagonists Doug Carpenter and Shelley Logan, two 20-something New Yorkers, find themselves stranded in the town when his car breaks down on the way to a friend’s wedding.  Engine trouble is soon the least of their worries though after they meet Casey Reynolds, an 11-year-old boy who tells the couple about monsters residing in his town. Initially skeptical, they soon start believing him and suspect the creatures – which wear fresh human skin as a disguise – have compromised everyone from the town doctor to the sheriff.  “The problem,” Schneck explains, “the human skins deteriorated, thus an insatiable appetite for a new skin.”

Working on SKINS gave Mastroianni a chance to indulge in his favorite pastime of playing with audiences’ emotions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the script’s opening where Jenkins picks up a young hitchhiker and begins literally sizing the boy up.  But not for his potential as a victim in the traditional sense, but for his valuable epidermis that he can offer to his master.  “You think this guy is a serial killer, picking up this kid,” Mastroianni reveals.  “And the kid starts feeling creeped out because the questions start getting personal.  He is
Mastroianni's tracks to terror
asking his size and everything. The kid’s thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to get out of here.’ And then it goes someplace else.  What I love in films is to take the audience in the direction they think they are going in and then give them a surprise.”

It also allowed the director an avenue to attempt to put up some previously thought of ideas onscreen, as displayed in the film’s penultimate chase scene that takes place at the town carnival.  “I’d come up with these set pieces in my head,” Mastroianni explains.  “I thought I’d love to do a sequence at the end where it’s on a roller coaster on fire. The first problem with being on a roller coaster is there is no way to get out because you’re strapped in your seat.  Most people are cringing because they are already afraid of the steep hills and all.  Now imagine if this creature were on the back of it, jumping from car to car towards them while the thing is on fire from all the electricity and stuff.”

Excerpts from the SKINS roller coaster scene 
© Mastroianni, Polgardy, and Schneck (1988, 2013)

“The thing I liked about SKINS,” Polgardy adds, “is that it had an incredible drive literally.  I mean, it started and it just had an incredible momentum that led to those last scenes in the movie.  You felt like you got on a rollercoaster in the story and you do get on a roller coaster at the end of the story.  We really had a lot of fun doing that.”

Smart Egg plugs SKINS in Variety circa 1988
Unfortunately, the ambitious nature of the script also proved to be instrumental in its downfall.  After a period at Heritage, the filmmakers took the project to Smart Egg Pictures, the company where Mastroianni had made CAMERON’S CLOSET (1988).  Re-teaming with CAMERON’S producer Luigi Cingolani, Mastroianni was given an initial budget of $2 million dollars to make the picture.  Despite doing some trims to the script, the team soon found the producer wanted to make more cost-cutting changes that were nonsensical.  “I remember Luigi wanted to make it in the desert at one point,” Polgardy divulges of the screenplay’s preproduction. “We were going crazy.”

“What the hell has that got to do with a furrier,” Mastroianni remembers wondering about the proposed decision to move the location from New England to the West Coast. Schneck agrees that New England, where fur trapping is much more prevalent, was the better place to place their action. “The whole idea of a creepy environment in the North was what we writers had always pictured,” he says.

Original SKINS ad:

The Man of the Writers' Nightmares
Polgardy also remembers Cingolani wanted the screenwriters to emulate more modern trends in horror; namely, a wisecracking serial killer currently burning up the box office. “All I remember is that Luigi constantly wanted our villain to be like Freddy Krueger,” he explains regarding the iconic character Smart Egg Pictures helped give birth to.  The screenplay, however, offers very little room for a Freddy-style villain and is thankfully bereft of any self effacing humor.  “You couldn’t have a Freddy Krueger [in our script],” Mastroianni contends. “Freddy was on his own all the time, he didn’t have a group following him or anything.”

Smart Egg advertised the film as part of their roster in February 1988, even going so far as to pencil in a July 1988 start date with a December 1988 delivery date for exhibitors (“They’re still waiting,” Mastroianni jokes). Preproduction, however, was fairly limited on the film.  Polgardy does recall that preliminary talks were done with special effects legends Tom Savini and Mark Shostrom to get their feel for the project.  Additionally, FX artist Bryan Moore did some groundwork design sketches for the creatures and even created a prototype of what a Eurynome would look like sans skin (see picture).  While no legit casting sessions were held, Polgardy remembers one big name being thrown around to play the main villain.  “They were considering David Bowie to play David Chambers,” he reveals. “We were looking at one key name and then some younger stars [in main roles].”

The SKINS crew:

Top Row (left to right): Schneck, Mastroianni, Eurynome prototype, Bryan Moore 
Bottom Row: Producer Luigi Cingolani, Polgardy

In the end, the project just proved to be too daunting for the amount of money the production was offering and Mastroianni felt it would ultimately do a disservice to their script.  “It became really apparent to us that we were going to make a much more compromised film.  It wasn’t going to be the film in that script because [Luigi] kept saying you can’t shoot this and you can’t shoot that,” he says. “It would have been a pale imitation of that.  Trust me, when we were about to start to shoot it, [the budget] would have dropped even more.”

Mastroianni was disappointed that he couldn’t get the project going and DOUBLE REVENGE proved to be his last project with Smart Egg.  He rebounded quickly though as he soon found himself in another world literally as he started work on the WAR OF THE WORLD television series.  As for the fledgling screenwriters, they were also let down by the turn of events.  “I think we were all very disappointed that we had come this far…then nothing,” Schneck says.

Perhaps the hardest hurt was Polgardy, who was just getting into show business at this time. “You have to understand, Armand had done a few movies,” he explains of his disappointment.  “I had never made a movie at that point.  I was a kid.  I told all my friends that it was being made.  So I had egg on my face after that one.”  Amusingly, Polgardy later became friends with screenwriter Brian Domonic Muir (CRITTERS), who was brought in to rewrite the SKINS screenplay by Smart Egg after the initial team’s tenure.  The disenchantment, however, did prove to be a creative impetus as Polgardy soon wrote the graphic novel FROM THE DARKNESS and it afforded him a career in the comic industry for 7 years.

Mastroianni & Polgardy, together again
Despite the film not being made, all three men have remained friends over the decades.  In fact, Mastroianni and Polgardy would later work together on the miniseries GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (2005).  Even more recently, Polgardy co-produced Mastroianni’s thriller DARK DESIRE (2012).  Asked whether or not they think they could ply their SKINS today, all three men agree that it could be done. “We could do it today for $2 million,” Polgardy says.  “It has a real good narrative drive and you could do the creatures real good.”

“It is not time specific either,” Mastroianni adds.  “There is a lot of that story that I still feel very close to. I like the journey you go on watching it.  You have no idea what you are in store for.  You don’t know where this movie is going.”

Perhaps Schneck sums it up best with his thoughts on pumping some blood back into SKINS. “I do believe that the concept of stolen identities is even more relevant as a theme now than it was back in 1988,” he says. “I would still love to see Armand and Ed make this horror film into something very special.”

4 Reactions:

  1. well done this is the kind of detective work I love to see...full marks ..

  2. To hear that from the MASTER of genre research makes me feel good. Thanks, David!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Leah,

    Thanks for your comment. I saw it before it was removed. Oddly enough, that is my photobucket page you posted a link to. I have tried to contact Jonathan Heap about THE TRIBE, but have never heard back from him. Hopefully one day.



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