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By Doug Brunell | September 10, 2004

As humans, our brains possess a lot of unconscious facts that we are all fairly set on. One of mine, and I believe I share this with many people, is that I would never, ever have to see a full frontal nude view of Debra Wilson from Mad TV. However, proving once again that life is full of all kinds of little surprises, I was wrong and now I have to live with the image for the rest of my life (c-section scar included). Maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but I’m just sticking with the theme of “Skin Deep”. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Debra Wilson; I think she’s pretty funny at times, but I just don’t buy her as the “sexy mistress” and, yes, those are quotes.

“Skin Deep” opens with a rather disturbing sex scene, one which is reminiscent of “Showgirls”; the pool is not present, but there is mosquito netting around the bed. We quickly discover that Alex (name ripped directly from “Fatal Attraction) is Anthony’s (Mailon Rivera) co-worker/mistress and, despite the “Showgirls” moment, Anthony no longer wants to see her. Alex (Debra Wilson), like her namesake, doesn’t take the break-up very well. After ending the affair Anthony speeds off on his motorcycle (chaps and all) and arrives at his large, expensive, secluded home where he and his wife, Victoria (Kristen Shaw), have a fight about the fact that she doesn’t put out like she should. After an uninteresting argument about their sex life, Anthony and Victoria’s close friends, Mike (Steve White) and Sarah (A.J. Johnson), arrive for a lunch and drinks. I forgot to mention (because in “Skin Deep” it does matter), Alex, Anthony, Mike and Sarah are black and, if you couldn’t tell by the name, Victoria is white.

During lunch Mike continuously insults and even attacks Anthony and Victoria, Anthony because he is a sell-out who lives in the suburbs and Victoria because she is “a pale-a*s brother stealing bitch” that needs to “walk a mile in a sister’s Nikes”. However, Mike’s ranting is not the most inappropriate thing about the lunch scene, instead, the unmotivated dolly move takes the honor. The camera swirls around the table in a motion reminiscent of an Aaron Spelling television program, one where they let a member of the cast direct. In an effort to lighten the mood, Sarah invites Victoria to jump into the hot tub and makes a move on her while they are getting ready. It’s not obvious exactly how far things go as, to the disappointment of any interracial girl-on-girl action fans, the scene is cut short. While Victoria and Sarah are making-out, Anthony and Mike have a quick discussion on the deck about how Sarah is unaware that Mike lost $100,000 on the pesky dot-com bust and the two nonchalantly joke about killing Sarah for the insurance money.

Like on the TV show “Blind Date” everyone eventually ends up in the hot tub. Mike and Sarah begin explicitly making-out and everyone else (film audience included) feels uncomfortable. Victoria, disgusted with Sarah’s actions in general and in light of her earlier advances, goes inside the house and Anthony follows. Victoria confesses to Anthony that Sarah put the moves on her and they get into an argument, actually these two can’t say half of a sentence to one another without fighting. Mike comes in mid-argument, brings everyone a drink and tries to cheer things up. Anthony tells Mike that Sarah hit on Victoria and in his regular charming fashion, Mike claims that his wife gets more women than he does and laughs. The doorbell rings, it’s a couple of white cops who have shown up due to a noise complaint. They are, of course, rude and display the usual authority-complex type behavior common to films that feature cops who stop by because of complaints of loud partying and dead people in the hot tub. I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself; once the cops leave Victoria, Anthony and Mike go outside and find Sarah’s lifeless body at the bottom of the hot tub. Now, unless you are Ted Kennedy, most people’s first thought would be to pick up a phone and dial 911. However, this is a movie and we all know what happens at this point in the story. The remaining trio make the trite decision not to use common sense and call the police, but instead decide to handle the situation without the help of the authorities. After all, two of the characters still living are black and you know how cops in the U.S. are, they just drag black men straight to prison on “trumped up charges” and let them rot away or execute them as soon as possible, especially if they’ve already been accused of something as horrid as a noise disturbance.

Everyone disagrees about what to do and they all yell at each other. The amount of bickering, arguing and anger in this film is quite irritating. It makes one think of the frequently quoted words of Rodney King, “why can’t we all just get along.” Oh, yeah there’s a dead body in the hot tub and it’s getting late, I guess that’s one reason. Anthony states that the call to the cops was probably placed by Alex, who is apparently living in his guesthouse (a strange revelation in light of the lengthy motorcycle ride from her place earlier in the day). Anthony leaves to go speak with Alex and see if she heard the increasingly funny “kill your wife for the insurance money” joke. He discovers that Alex did call the cops and that she is aware of the dead friend on the deck. She convinces Anthony that she’ll keep everything quiet if he leaves his wife for her. Further proving that he is a complete idiot, Anthony agrees and returns home to deliver the divorce news to Victoria. He confesses and receives a big slap across the face. Mike is appalled and decides to take care of business by paying a visit to Alex, because, “he’s not going to jail for some crazy bitch”. Alex, who is apparently a nymphomaniac, tries to get Mike to sleep with her even though they look like twins who were separated at birth. Mike refuses, the two get into a brawl and things continuously get worse for everyone involved.

Peppered throughout the film are cut-aways that present possibilities for what may have happened to poor Sarah. The scenes are presented in a dream-like style with a red tint to the image. These flashback type clips constantly drag the film down to the quality and content level of a Lifetime movie. Every time the film begins to hold its own, one of the sequences pops up and pulls the movie back down. Other than the recurring “what-if” sequences, the cinematography in “Skin Deep” is pretty darn good, most scenes could stand up against the average mainstream theatrical release.

“In a world of love, sex, race and betrayal, not all suspects are created equal” is the tag line. I’m of the mindset that if you if you can’t handle love, sex, race and betrayal all at the same time, pick one and focus on it. While all of the issues presented in the tag line are covered, most are quickly skimmed (the slant is toward race) and none seem to have any real profundity. The script is average (though it does have its fervent moments) and a good bit of the dialogue is strong (though it does have a few faint areas). However, despite its arguable low points, “Skin Deep” is a solid independent film that contains a detailed script presented in a simple setting and featuring better than average performances. While it is Steve White (Mike) who received the Best Actor nod at the American Black Film Festival last year, the strongest and most consistent performance is delivered by Mailon Rivera (Anthony). A.J. Johnson and Kristen Shaw are both excellent and most importantly, believable. Surprisingly Debra Wilson is the weakest link, her delivery is not only completely one-dimensional, but unbelievable and constantly over-the-top. I would blame it on the direction if the other actors weren’t so good. The composition in the film is first-rate and although the script unravels a bit like a play (the limited location doesn’t do anything to help), the movie held my attention. While the end didn’t blow me away, it isn’t completely formulaic either. Taken as a whole, “Skin Deep” is a fine effort by Sacha Parisot and crew.

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