There’s a shot late in Christian Neuman’s horror flick Skin Walker of a character confronting another at a mental institution. They sit across from each other, the camera swirling around them, over and over, faster and faster, to the point of inducing nausea. That’s just one of the questionable feats the filmmaker achieves in this sporadically compelling but ultimately nonsensical slog.
A deliberate lack of cohesion is another. Scenes lurch from one to the other, with next-to-no thread to tie them. Neuman had a vision and stuck to it, relatability and cohesion be damned. Alas, he’s no David Lynch. A murky picture does emerge (somewhat) towards the end, but to get there, one has to endure never-ending flashbacks, confusing and lackluster character development, and a series of images that sort of resemble Chris Cunningham’s music video/psycho-fest Rubber Johnny. The thing is, brevity was key to Rubber Johnny‘s traumatizing effect on the psyche; by giving his Johnny stand-in a backstory, Neuman eliminates all the key elements that would render him compelling.
I’ll try to summarize the bonkers plot. The clearly-traumatized goth Regine (Amber Anderson) gets a surprise visit from a mysterious man, Robert (Jefferson Hall), who claims to be her dead brother’s father and warns her of imminent danger. After briefly visiting mom at the mental hospital, Regine returns to the family estate for grandma’s funeral. There, she reunites with creepy-as-f**k dad, Claus (Udo Kier), who reluctantly embraces his daughter. As Regine delves into her past, things unravel: Robert was her mother’s lover; her brother may be alive; he may or may not be a horrific-looking vampire. “We need to find him,” Robert urges.
“…claims to be her dead brother’s father and warns her of imminent danger.”
Neuman puts a lot of passion into this unconventional story; the energy is palpable, if misguided. The constant flashbacks become irritating. Scenes don’t coalesce, and that’s disregarding continuity issues (Regine’s eyes apparently changed color between her being a child and womanhood). For example, Regine comes on to Robert out of the blue at one point; her “transformation” in the latter part of the film also feels forced and unjustified by the preceding build-up. The film’s setting is compelling but vague: are we in Denmark, England, or Germany? Regine partakes in a festival celebration reminiscent of the one in Midsommar, but that scene, like so many others, just drifts off to nothing.
The actors do their best, looking befuddled at times. Amber Anderson struggles with her character’s trajectory, but who wouldn’t? It comes as no surprise that Udo Kier fares best, the film’s saving grace. “You do the first cut,” his laconic Claus says, handing his daughter a knife to slice into a deer. He gets away with the cheesiest of lines (“You don’t choose your destiny. It chooses you.”). The scene where he slams a giant hammer against the dinner table, screaming, “Yeah!” is almost worth the price of a rental by itself.
All the blemishes are unfortunate, as Neuman displays real talent when it comes to directing the non-trippy sequences – ones that have little to do with the headache (and nausea)-inducing plot. I wish Skin Walker were about Regine’s complex relationship with her father, or the peril of familial bonds, or the inescapability of one’s traumatic past, or functioned as an acute character study. Neuman takes many stabs but fails to penetrate flesh.
"…Neuman takes many stabs but fails to penetrate flesh."