Skull & Bones (2007) *
It’s funny. Here I had been thinking that I really ought to weigh in on this “torture porn” business that so many grown-up horror fans have been grumbling over lately— you know, check out Hostel, Saw, Cabin Fever, whatever else Eli Roth might have done recently to piss people off. As it turns out, though, my introduction to the genre comes not via any of those much-discussed films, but through this ostensibly satiric, micro-budget, queer class-war revenge fantasy, which might not even have been officially released yet. Skull & Bones is the first feature-length movie from New Yorker T. S. Slaughter, and while it does at least exhibit a certain degree of technical craftsmanship, it nevertheless falls squarely into the realm of “don’t quit your day job.”
The torturers here are Nathan (Derrick Wolfe) and Justin (Michael Burke), a pair of “gay sex buddies” who attend Shoreline Connecticut State University in New Haven, on the other side of town from a much more prestigious institution coyly identified here as “Ivy University.” Nathan and Justin are also roommates, leaving me somewhat at a loss to discern what the difference between “gay sex buddies” and “boyfriends” might be. But whatever terminology you favor, I believe we can all agree that they’re a couple of sick fucks. Nathan can attain arousal only while thinking about particularly violent movies or uncommonly vicious crimes. He obsessively reads true-crime books, collects newspaper clippings about serial killers, and keeps his deck of “famous murderer” playing cards always close at hand. Justin, meanwhile, pretty much just listens raptly to Nathan’s constant ranting and says, “You’re so awesome!” a lot. Bored out of their skulls with the routine of their lives, the boys decide that the time has come to bring some of their twisted fantasies out into the real world.
Their first victim is Andy Morgan (Jared DiCroce), the brown-nosing know-it-all from their English class. Nathan thinks it would be a hoot and a holler to get Andy drunk, drug him, and then rape him repeatedly while he’s unconscious. Justin, opining as usual that Nathan is so awesome, agrees to procure the necessary chemicals from the clinic where he works. A few days later, they invite Andy over to their place for a few beers, and once he’s good and loaded, they start asking him whether he’s ever had sex with another guy, whether he’s ever wanted to have sex with another guy, or whether he’s ever considered the possibility of wanting to have sex with another guy. Andy finally gets the hint just as he begins feeling the effects of the sedatives in his beer. By the time the evening is through, he’s going to have every firm, cylindrical object in the apartment crammed sequentially up his butt, whether he likes it or not. Even more unfortunately for Andy, he starts coming out from under the drugs right around the time that Nathan thinks to wonder why the electric toothbrush should be having all the fun. Justin doses Andy with halithane (apparently it’s like chloroform, only twice as strong) to forestall the ugliness that is sure to result when their “guest” awakens to find Nathan’s cock in his ass, but he overdoes it a little. Andy asphyxiates and dies, and the boys must swiftly improvise some way to dispose of the body.
Their first killing is thus an accident, but Nathan and Andy quickly realize that they actually liked it better that way. Seeking even bigger thrills and groping for justifications, the two Shoreliners latch onto the traditional rivalry between their proletarian school and the scions of wealth over at Ivy. The way Nathan figures it, he and Justin would be performing a veritable public service if they took out an Ivy kid or two. Their first reconnaissance (at a bar frequented by Ivy students) brings them into contact— and conflict— with Chad Phelps-Davenport (Ryan G. Metzger), Brooks Peters (Matt Van Bockern), Travis Taft (James Stover), and Zack Whitney (Daniel Meredith). Not only are these guys rich as fuck and completely convinced of their birthrights to own the world someday, they’re also newly inducted members of the elite secret society of the Skull & Bones— the same outfit that both Presidents Bush belonged to during their college years. The Ivy guys are perfectly content to chat with Nathan and Justin at first; after all, what good is it to be an egotistical prick if there’s no one around to brag to? But then Justin makes the mistake of mentioning Shoreline, and the conversation takes a very rapid downturn. Were it not for the bartender tossing Nathan and Justin out on their asses, a four-on-two fist-fight would almost certainly have been in the offing. Of course, the boys had gone into that bar looking specifically for enemies to brutalize later, so Chad and the gang have actually given them exactly what they wanted.
Skull & Bones initially left me rather at a loss for words, so I did something I normally eschew, and had a look at a couple of other reviews before settling in to write my own. Primarily, I was curious as to what, exactly, people who enjoyed this movie were seeing in it that I did not. Adjectives like “disgusting,” “disturbing,” “depraved,” and “debauched” came up a lot, as did specific mention of the film’s graphic sexual violence. Well, maybe. I guess. If you squint really hard, and are at least sort of uncomfortable with male homosexuality per se. Personally, I found that the overeager campiness of the murder, rape, and torture scenes combined with the broad, stagy performances of the lead actors to scuttle any emotional reaction beyond mild-to-moderate irritation. Also, there are only so many foreign objects you can stick up a guy’s ass before the sheer repetition becomes both grating and dull. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is disturbing. Bloodsucking Freaks is depraved. Skull & Bones is more like The Undertaker and His Pals, only with butt-fucking and a virtually all-male cast. As for being graphic— hey, I’ve seen Fantom Kiler and Violent Shit. Not that I’d ever hold either of those movies up as a role model for anyone, since they both suck only slightly less than Skull & Bones does, but that’s “graphic sexual violence.” Except for one scene (which genuinely belongs in the aforementioned dubious company), this is red paint poured on some dude’s ass-crack. Forgive me, but I’m not impressed.
If goofy murders and barely-trying gore were the only problems with Skull & Bones, it might still have come out okay, but sadly, those defects are merely the beginning. A much more serious failing is that the movie’s central conflict offers you no real rooting interest. On the one side, we have two utterly pathetic, uncharismatic, not-very-smart serial rape-murderers. On the other, we have four cartoonishly total assholes. Then in the middle, we’ve got a rarely seen college administrator (Rick Van Valkenburg) who evidently aspires one day to be elected mayor of the setting for some crappy direct-to-video Jaws knockoff, and a campus security chief (Geoffrey Reynolds) whom Slaughter deliberately modeled after the two worthless cops from The Last House on the Left. Really, who could possibly give a shit about the outcome of that contest? Skull & Bones might have had something had Slaughter allowed the Ivy boys to be people— even feckless, unsympathetic, corrupt people— instead of broad-stroke caricatures, but I suppose that would have blunted what passes for the movie’s satirical thrust. Alternately, he might have gone the Maniac-Don’t Go in the House route, and really played up the vileness of the killers’ personalities and the hideousness of their crimes, but that would certainly have ruled out the camp sensibility that seems to have been so important to him. Or maybe Slaughter could have hired an actor capable of faking some remote semlance of charisma to play Nathan, in an effort to get us on his side the same way everybody always winds up cheering for Vincent Price in Theater of Blood and the Dr. Phibes movies. Of course, actors who can do that tend to want money for their services, placing them beyond the reach of a micro-budgeteer assembling his first feature film. But while the excuses may be valid enough, in the end, they’re still just excuses.
Where Skull & Bones does not have any excuse is in the near-total failure of the satire for which every possibility of it working as a horror movie was sacrificed. It continues to amaze me how few people get this, but the main difference between satire and other forms of humor is that in satire, the jokes are a delivery system for something more serious. If you’re making a satire of anything, you really need to have a point! And preferably, you should have just one point, or at most a small number of points that relate to each other in some meaningful way. Skull & Bones, however, has only the aborted embryos of points, none of which seem to have anything to do with one another. Mostly, Slaughter seems to want to say something about social class— I’m not sure what, exactly, because nothing in this movie is sufficiently developed for that, but it was probably something about social superiority not equating to moral superiority. There’s just one slight problem with this: the lower-class guys who are supposedly just as good as their wealthier counterparts are rapists and murderers. Call me old-fashioned, but rapists and murderers place higher than smarmy, rich dickweeds on my personal “cull from the herd” hierarchy. Then there’s the recurring theme of the masks Nathan and Justin wear during their crimes. Both boys don George W. Bush masks before going to work on Chad. Nathan wears a Bill Clinton mask when killing Brooks, dressing up his victim as a halfway-passable approximation of Monica Lewinsky. Travis is made to wear the face of George Bush Sr., while his killers disguise themselves as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. (Zack’s is the odd murder out, taking instead the form of a riff on The Serpent and the Rainbow.) Frankly, I have no idea what in the hell this is supposed to be about, beyond a desperate attempt to offend the easily offended, simply for the sake of doing it. Presumably Slaughter picked the two Bushes because one of them is still in power and both had been members of Skull & Bones, while Clinton was selected for the sake of appearing non-partisan, but nothing ever comes of the idea— assuming an unelaborated mental cul-de-sac like “the killers put on political masks ‘cause… um… well, ‘cause it’s, like, political or something…” even counts as an idea. And finally, there are a few things going on in Skull & Bones that are nothing but ill-considered distractions, like that out-of-nowhere The Serpent and the Rainbow pastiche, or the even sillier tendency of Nathan and Justin to quote dialogue from Jeff Stryker movies while raping their victims. Trust me, if you’re attempting to offer up any sort of sociopolitical thesis at all— even if you’re doing it in the form of a nominally comedic slasher movie— taking time out to poke fun at the writing in gay hardcore porn is counterproductive at best.