Monday, April 3, 2017

"Suck a Greyhound Bus Through a Straw" - Skullduggery (1983)

Our next classic will be Skullduggery, 1983's avant garde slasher comedy/talent show.

While some reviewers might be forgiven for not seeing the brilliance of Skullduggery's mixing of genres and tones, there is no excuse for some of the ridiculous responses to the film. For example, perl writes on IMDB, "plot is incomprehensible and filled to the brim with pompous symbolism no one buts its filmmakers could explain.”  Also on IMDB, evan90 writes, “ Its plot holes had plot holes. The intense amount of useless character who die evoke no emotion.” Again on IMDB, tromafreak writes, “Every review I ever read turned out to be a warning, in one form or another.”

Perhaps tromafreak should read the review that follows, which will not be a warning in any form but a strong endorsement of the ahead-of-its-time Skullduggery.

The film begins with a now-classic theme song, whose words I have transcribed below for the purpose of highlighting such brilliant songwriting.

Can you read
What's in my mind?
Tearing up my mind
Heavy breath
Passion in your eyes
I just found the clue
It's all lies

I can see
What's in your hand
Feeling just the pain
Killer smile
Now I understand
Shattered hopes and dreams
All fall down

The film's prologue, set in Canterbury, England in 1382, involves a sect of devil worshippers poisoning an apple by inserting what appears to be a hand grenade's pin. They pray to a clown mask mounted on a wall.

Then they kill the king's guards, but in a subversion of expectations they do not kill the monarch outright. They give him a choice of two apples, only one of which is poisoned. Perhaps unwisely, he takes a bite from one of the apples.

The king appears fine, so one of the devil worshippers simply stabs him.

The other devil worshipper, whose costume is coincidentally similar to that of Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), explains to the surviving queen that their unborn child is promised to the devil worshipper. He further explains that a spell is cast on said unborn offspring for generations to come. The nature of the spell, however, is left unsaid for the sake of suspense.

As the man casts his spell, the queen dies, calling into question how the unborn child will carry the spell forward through the generations if it will never be born.

The film then moves on to a place called Trottelville, USA in 1982. Adam and Barbara walk out of a hospital discussing a game they are attending. "It's hard to say where the game begins or life ends," Adam says. "Sometimes I feel like one of those figurines on the board." It is clear they are not talking about football or baseball but some kind of medieval role playing game.

Along the way, Adam and Barbara stop at Barbara's father's costume shop, which appears to do a thriving business despite having an unpronounceable name.

The game is being played in the back room of the costume shop. The game itself, unnamed in the film, is a sophisticated combination of role playing and board game, complete with a cardboard castle in the middle of the table.


Later, at the local junior college, performers are preparing for the annual talent show. In the dressing room, Adam watches a mysterious androgynous magician in a tuxedo wave his wand and make potato chips and cans of beer appear, which delights the performers. The magician walks away silently.


In the next scene, we are treated to a realistic depiction of the horrors of early 1980s sexual harassment, as Barbara is subjected to the double entendres of one of the actors, including "Watch me suck a Greyhound bus through a straw." Chilling!

The magician is the first act on stage at the talent show. The act is described as unbelievable but consists of the magician rubbing red paint on a glove, turning a rope inside a box into a snake and then a necklace, and then transforming himself from a magician into a Punch doll (though I might have misunderstood this final trick because a later scene shows the magician and the doll together).

The next act in the talent show is a parody of Romeo and Juliet intended to be comedic, but when Adam watches it and sees the costumes, he has a sudden flashback to the opening sequence where the devil worshippers killed the king.

The flashback makes Adam snap. Finding a costume and dressing as a medieval archer, he stalks an actress as she washes her hands in the bathroom (the film's surrealistic tendencies come to the fore here, as the sink makes the sound of a toilet flushing).

When his intended victim walks down a hallway, Adam lunges at her with a sword, but he only manages to impale the stage door.

Onstage, the next act is a female exchange student from Italy. The balding MC reveals another chilling layer of sexism in his introduction: "Ah, the wonder of Italy. How one country can turn out such tiny little cars and such enormous women."

I have neglected to mention a series of shots intercut into the narrative. These shots show a mysterious man sitting at a desk with smoke rising behind him. At various points in the story, this man takes large jigsaw puzzle pieces out of a box and puts them on the table in front of him. The puzzle depicts a medieval tapestry.


I have also neglected to mention a running gag involving a janitor that we only see from the back. On his jumpsuit he wears a tic tac toe board, which gets progressively and hilariously filled in with Xs and Os as the film progresses.

Another talent show act shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Adam--the role playing game enthusiast, not the character in the Eden scene--sees the apple, he flashes back to the poisoned apple in the opening sequence and casts a spell by saying, "Diavolos Etouffe."

An enormous boa constrictor appears from nowhere and circles around the actress playing Eve, to no reaction whatsoever from the audience.

After the show is over, we find out from Barbara that the actress actually died from a heart attack; Adam was the only one who saw the snake attack her. He says nothing about the magic spell he cast.

Apropos of nothing, Barbara tells Adam she knows a fortune teller, and Adam should visit her. He goes to downtown Trottelville, USA--which resembles downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada--to meet with Madame Karnos.

The Madame Karnos sequence builds and builds. We watch in suspense as the fortune teller asks for payment, Adam hands her a check, and she verifies his driver's license number for payment. She amazes Adam by telling him he has a small wart under his armpit. Then she sees something alarming in the tarot cards. "Your life is a puzzle only the devil can solve," she says poetically.

In response, he stabs her with a pen, killing her instantly.

Later, during the role playing game, Adam and the others are sent on a quest to kill a sorceress in white by their dungeon master, an older man with graying hair. Adam interprets this quest to mean that he should kill a woman in white, such as a bride or a nurse. The next day, he goes to the hospital where Barbara works as a nurse. Does he mean to kill Barbara, his friend?

The hospital setting allows the filmmakers to again show off their comedic talents. We see the silhouette of a doctor and nurse having sex in a hospital bed. "Oh, doctor, you're the best," says the nurse, continuing, " this room, at this time." A moment later, it is revealed that the doctor is wearing a gorilla costume and smoking a cigar, for unexplained reasons.

Unfortunately for this nurse, Adam, dressed in doctor's scrubs, is stalking her instead of Barbara. He injects her in the temple with a hypodermic and she dies instantly, though later we learn that she died of a heart attack, like Adam's previous victims.

Adam's next victim is another nurse in white from the same hospital. Through plot machinations too complicated to describe here, Adam ends up in her apartment while she irons his pants. When he snaps, he grabs a decorative sickle from the wall of her urban apartment and chases her outside.

She seeks refuge in a church, but, unsurprisingly, the only person in the church is a Liberace impersonator who is too busy tickling the ivories to let her inside.

As the nurse runs through the cemetery next door, Adam casts a spell and transforms magically into his medieval archer costume. The chase continues through the graves, where the film subversively takes the wind out of authority figures by having a priest say, "shit" and an elderly mourner call the nurse and Adam "stupid assholes."

Eventually, Adam uses a sword that has appeared from nowhere to kill the nurse in the cemetery.

Not content just to murder, Adam slices off a swatch of white cloth from the nurse's uniform the next time he plays the role playing game. The other gamers begin to get suspicious, but they continue to play the game, though they do not seem to enjoy playing the slightest bit.

Later, Adam is helping a woman who resembles Tyne Daly try on costumes. She has tried on several but can't find the one she wants. Like most customers at the costume shop, presumably, the woman starts stabbing a dressmaker's dummy over and over and over again.

Adam excuses himself to look for a costume. Apparently not understanding his function as a costume store salesperson, he returns wearing a bunny costume himself. He does, however, understand his function as a serial killer, so he murders the woman with a switchblade.

The next time the group plays the role playing game, the dungeon master gives their party an assignment to slaughter a fictional group of evildoers. Somehow this involves Adam sneaking into a secret costume party by using his own name and not wearing any kind of costume.

At the secret disco costume party, Adam is met by a man calling himself Dr. Evel. "Tell me, Mr. Burton," says Dr. Evel, "what fantasy would you least expect to find realized here tonight?"

Profoundly, Adam replies, "Innocence."

Dr. Evel introduces Adam to an innocent young woman named Irene who offers him an apple, triggering another of Adam's medieval poison apple flashbacks.

Of course, Adam murders Irene violently with a meat cleaver in the kitchen, then puts on a chef's hat and chops up her body (offscreen).

The party is peppered with verbal and visual gags. A woman who looks like Andrea Martin describes her new boyfriend, whom she describes as considerate, handsome, and employed at IBM. She points him out to her friend, and we see he is in fact a hippie with a newspaper down his pants. Brilliant comedy!

There is also a dance number, but it is a tedious misstep in an otherwise flawless film and will not be described here.

Adam is introduced to a woman who will initiate him into the secret society, about which we know nothing. "Join us," she tells him, "and you will experience the utmost ecstasy. There are only two ultimates in life. Money and power. Power and money. Join us. Be our brother."

He murders the woman by turning a valve and blasting her with steam from a pipe, which turns her into a skeleton.

He then interrupts an attempted rape by impaling the female victim and her two male attackers, one dressed as Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, with a conveniently placed lance.

The tense climax approaches as costumed characters we do not know are stalked by Adam, the protagonist.

But the stalking is soon forgotten, and all the partygoers assemble back in the main room. There is another performance for the party, this time a magic trick which seems to leave a woman dead, her head in a fish tank alongside the Punch puppet.

Finally, the mysterious man assembling the puzzle is done. The puzzle is a tapestry of Adam and Eve, The man stands up, his face now revealed in the light. I must confess I do not know who the man is supposed to be. Possibly Dr. Evel. I don't know.


The other mysterious gag is continued as well, with the janitor wearing the tic tac toe coverall moving through the scene of the costume party/murder. All but one space on the tic tac toe board is filled in, indicating the film is nearly complete (and also indicating there will be no winner).

The film's brilliant, theatrical absurdity continues as the police investigate the murder at the costume party. "Chief, I found the killer," says a detective wearing an obviously fake mustache. He brings in the hippie who worked for IBM.

The police chief says, "Precisely, Watson. If that's your real name."

"This man is not the killer," intones Dr. Evel.

Watson says, "He's got blood all over him." The hippie does not have blood all over him. The hippie looks down, confused about the detective's clearly false statement.

"Elementary, my dear Watson," says the chief.

"It isn't blood," says Dr. Evel. "It's ketchup." Dr. Evel explains that the murderer is actually Adam Burton, who left his business card behind.

The S.W.A.T. team that raids the costume shop, however, cannot find Adam. They move through the massive warehouse full of costumes. Adam is too smart for them. Though he is now dressed in an unwieldy goat-headed devil costume, Adam strangles a handful of the S.W.A.T. team with a piano wire. He kills another policeman with an arrow.

Finally, Adam appears in a suit of armor to assault the remaining two officers. They fire, apparently killing him. But when they remove the helmet, they find only the Punch doll. Adam was the Punch doll all along.


Back at the role playing game, Adam is gone. The players are confused about what has occurred. The dungeon master explains that Adam was a cursed warlock, which explains all that happened. They allow Adam to play with them in absentia by allowing the empty gauntlet from the suit of armor roll the dice.

"He's still with us. He's present. I can feel it." The dungeon master reaches for the dice, but the entire suit of armor rises up and kills the dungeon master with a sword.

When viewed through the lens of standard narrative logic, Skullduggery makes no sense whatsoever.

When viewed through the lens of our unconscious dream life, too, Skullduggery makes no sense whatsoever.

Skullduggery can only be understood, if indeed it is possible to understand this masterwork at all, as a series of self-conscious performance pieces weaving horror and comedy together into a unique tapestry (or, perhaps, a puzzle of a tapestry). The overarching narrative, similar to Mark of the Witch (1970) with its cursed descendants, serves the film’s main purpose of presenting its performers playing their varied roles. The role playing game, the talent show, and the costume party are all a series of performances in which the actors take on a variety of roles. In this way, the film is like a return to vaudeville, its loosely connected acts strung together for an evening of entertainment. However, Skullduggery aims a little higher as it attempts to blur the lines between performance and real life along the lines of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), but with a character named Dr. Evel and a Liberace impersonator.

It is somewhat surprising that Skullduggery does not end with a coda in which the performers take a bow together, their performances done for the night. Perhaps the film would have been even better with this ending, or at least with a final reading, possibly the famous end of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “A Dream Within a Dream”: “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?”