The Ballad of Skinless Pete is a perfect example of the need to look beyond the Hollywood offerings to find great horror today. In order to truly appreciate this film in all of its greatness, you need to understand a few things. The first is that it was filmed on a budget of approximately $2,000. I don't think most major studios are capable of running their advertising campaign for that small amount of money. The second thing you must know is that Dustin Wade Mills basically runs a one-man studio. The Ballad of Skinless Pete was written, directed, edited, and scored by Dustin Wade Mills. The story was developed by Brandon Salkil and Dustin Wade Mills. The special effects were done by DMP Studios, which translates to, you guessed it, Dustin Wade Mills. So before you even begin to talk about what this movie wasn't, you need to see everything that it is. This becomes even more impressive when you consider what this incredible artist had to work with and what he accomplished.
The greatest asset, outside his own twisted imagination and talent, that Mills did have on his side was an amazingly talented cast. Brandon Salkil has performed in every Dustin Mills movie and his performances never get stale. Salkil's performance as Dr. Peter Peele, manages to convey a perfect blend of arrogance and instability as we watch him descend into madness. Salkil's facial expressions and use of voice inflection alone make this film worth watching, even if it did not have anything else going for it. Salkil's range of facial expressions are astounding. He is the horror fan's Jim Carrey with his range of looks that can express any emotion and convey any thought with amazing clarity. Combine that with Mills' fantastic dialogue ("I'm going to get wasted and laid. I just cured cancer, mother fucker!") and you have fantastic entertainment. The talent does not end at Salkil, however, but is equally found in the lovely and skilled Erin Ryan.
Erin Ryan gives another brilliant performance, this time in the role of Dr. Alice Cross, the close friend and partner of Dr. Peter Peele. Erin Ryan makes you truly feel for her character and you find yourself with an emotional investment in the movie quickly after she is introduced. Ryan hits every emotional mark that Mills sets for her without the slightest bit of overacting or impression of insincerity. You find yourself wanting to close your eyes so you don't have to see what she endures and you also want to stand and cheer for her at times. The performances of both Erin Ryan and Brandon Salkil are aided, but never overshadowed, by the range of talent displayed by Dustin Wade Mills.
There are so many aspects of Mills' involvement in the movie that could be discussed. While the general themes of the movie can be found in other films and books previously, Mills brings a freshness to the story that leaves you seeing it as something unique and original. The dialogue is great and the story plays out well with excellent pacing. Mills shows that he is the king of micro-budget film making with his intense, cringe-worthy special effects that are even more astounding when you consider the budget with which he was working. Mills also provides a great musical score that really sets the tone and emotion without overshadowing the action. The music doesn't try to force emotion or tell us what we should be feeling as much as it simply emphasizes what is there. It is as natural a part of the experience as can be seen in many John Carpenter films to the point where you could not imagine the film being the same without it. The immense amount of praise I find myself with for this movie greatly overshadows the minor issues I find with it.
Warning - some spoilers follow.
The first thing I have to say about my issues with this movie is that it took several viewings to really see them as even the slightest of flaws. The first time I watched this film, I was so engaged in the story and the acting, that I did not even particularly notice any of this. It was only when I went back and sat down with the intention of reviewing this film that these things came to my attention. Again, I also feel the need to stress that you have to appreciate what Mills was working with in creating this masterpiece. While these flaws would be considered unacceptable for a bigger, large-budget Hollywood production, they barely register for an independent film. Mills seemed to have a little bit of trouble keeping glare out of some of the shots from the back lighting. It is entirely possible that some of this may have even been intentional to help with the mood of the scenes and prevent us from getting a clear shot of Skinless Pete early on. Another technical issue was that in the scene where Salkil is wearing the germ guard mask and talking to Neil, it is difficult to understand what he is saying. Considering he was wearing the Skinless Pete mask, his "face" mask, and then the germ guard mask, it is understandable that this happens and I'm not sure how easy or challenging this would have been to fix in post-production. My final issue with this film was the scene where Neil suddenly appears walking through the kitchen and into the dining room intent on shooting Pete. Prior to that scene, I was pretty sure that Neil was dead and it seemed a real stretch to believe that he could still be alive at that point in the story. This is possibly the only scene that interferes with the audiences suspension of disbelief. However, Mills ends the part quickly and is able to expertly pull us right back into the amazing story he has set up and played out.
Overall, I saw this as one of the best independent films I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. It has all that you can ask for in a horror movie and manages to provide it in a story and character driven manner. Dustin Mills' biggest problem with this movie is that he has set his bar high and now must top it as he goes forward with his career! On a scale of 1 - 5, I see the breakdown of this movie as follows:
Acting - 5/5
Story - 5/5
Effects - 5/5
Camera Work/Production Skill - 4/5
Overall Entertainment Value - 5/5
Total Score - 4.8/5 - HIGHLY RECOMMEND!!!