The Lie, the Wish, and the Wardrobe

by Michael Curtis Nelson

8 November 2010

Naturalizing the paranormal fare so popular on the big and small screens, Skeletons recasts a familiar horror plot as a quirky, and fussily British, intervention to rescue families from their self-destructive tendencies.
cover art


Director: Nick Whitfield
Cast: Ed Gaughan, Andrew Buckley, Paprika Steen, Tuppence Middleton, Jason Isaacs

US DVD: 19 Oct 2010

What if exorcists rid people of their figurative demons, instead of the ones from Hell? Naturalizing the paranormal fare so popular on the big and small screens, Skeletons recasts a familiar horror plot as a quirky, and fussily British, intervention to rescue families from their self-destructive tendencies.

Bennet and Davis work for Veridical, a company that reveals secrets from clients’ pasts, in order to enable them to get on with their lives. The duo first access these hidden bits of personal history by inhabiting and experiencing memories first-hand. Then, because secrets have a corporeal existence—we never see them, but they tend to reside in upstairs closets—they must be released through an “extraction”, a procedure akin to an exorcism or ritual cleansing. In the final step of the process, the men narrate the discoveries to their clients, who are left to deal with the knowledge on their own.

“Simple, this job: stick to the rules, tell them everything, leave and never come back”, Davis (Ed Gaughan) cautions Bennett (Andrew Buckley), who feels a responsibility to help clients come to terms with the revelations Veridical provides. But if Bennett flirts with “going native”, Davis has his own weakness. Obsessed with revisiting a childhood bonding moment with his parents, captured in a photograph he uses as a trigger to relive the event, Davis is in danger of becoming a “glow-chaser”, addicted to the rush of vicariously experiencing strong emotion.

A particularly difficult extraction involving a missing husband and a daughter who hasn’t spoken for years tempts both men to give in to their weaknesses, and threatens their livelihoods, their friendship, and perhaps their sanity.

Skeletons has the timeless quality of a parable. Some viewers might even find that it offers a moral of sorts.

The film takes place in (mostly rural) England in 2006, but the real setting is imaginary—an analog world out of time without cell phones or laptops, where our heroes write with fountain pens on company stationery, and identify homes of clients from sketches of the structures supplied by Veridical. Davis and Bennett’s professional paraphernalia recalls mid-twentieth-century scientific instrumentation (meters with dials and needle displays emit Geiger-counter-like clicks) and turn of the 20th-century garb (extractions require goggles and gauntlets like those worn by early motorists). In one of the “viral videos” included on the DVD, Director Nick Whitfield calls production designer James Lapsley inspiration for the film’s mise-en-scène “Victorian spiritualism”. Simon Whitfield’s slightly sinister circus-like musical score enhances this ambience.

A peculiar film treatment heightens the otherworldly quality of Skeletons and calls attention to the art of filmmaking. Frames are manipulated to create tiny jump cuts, giving the impression that the film is skipping or that it’s being cranked by hand. The disconcerting, at times annoying effect invites an interpretation of Skeletons as a comment on film production, as does the nature of Bennett and Davis’ engagement with clients’ memories. “Go in for a POV on the woman, and I’ll follow”, Bennett tells Davis as they inhabit the recollection of a client.

Like scriptwriters or writer-directors, the duo adopt roles, switch perspectives, conduct research, and finally stitch together a coherent narrative, all at the behest of their boss, The Colonel. That personage (Jason Isaacs), like the controlling impresario with the same title who managed Elvis Presley, acts like a studio exec: by turns abusive and coddling, he’s grooming his protégés for the “A-team”, a gig that he tells them will be their “ticket out of the domestic, into the global stuff”.

That is, Bennett and Davis make “small” independent films that focus on familial relationships. They want no part of the blockbuster productions staged by The Colonel’s A-Team, but when they go over budget on their troublesome extraction, The Colonel gives them an ultimatum. The praise and attention garnered by Skeletons may pose a similar dilemma for Whitfield.

Skeletons defies easy categorization. In another viral video, Gaughan jokes repeatedly that the film is Lethal Weapon, an intentionally absurd comparison given the lack of action in Skeletons. Still, this low-budget independent feature, like the Mel Gibson / Danny Glover blockbuster, works because of the chemistry between its two male leads. Buckley calls SkeletonsGhostbusters meets Withnail and I meets something… kind of”. Reviewers have compared it to Men in Black, another absurd, apt analogy.

Whatever its generic affiliations, Skeletons succeeds as a comedy and a meditation on the nature of family and the inevitability of loss. Buckley and Gaughan are comics, and their interactions bring the vitality and humor of a stand-up routine to the film. Davis’s rant about the moral superiority of Rasputin to John and Robert Kennedy in the film’s opening scene sets the standard for the repartee to come. And yet, even when scenes are so bizarre that they seem to demand only a guffaw—Gaughan mimicking the behavior of the three-year-old Davis, for example—Skeletons moves while it amuses.

How about “self-reflexive, serio-comic, cult buddy parable”?



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