Skeletons in the Closet is a blood-spattered love letter to 1980s horror and late night movie hosts. Except when it’s not. Which is most of the time.
At least this anthology kicks off the right way, diving more or less right into a trailer for The Muck. (Think The Raft segment from Creepshow 2 by way of Nancy Thompson’s bathtub, complete with that distinctively breathless, bassy voiceover at the end.) The cinematography is polished and impossibly gorgeous. Jazzercise and stock footage of Ronnie Reagan go a long way towards selling its period setting.
As an equally ’80s-as-hell babysitter (Elizabeth Stenholt) rolls her eyes, pint-sized fright fanatic Jamie (Alaina Karner) thumbs through a stack of comic books, waiting for her favorite horror hostess’ TV show to start. Every week on channel 13, the Widow (Ellie Church) plops down next to her long-dead husband Charlie (Adam Michaels) on their basement couch, quipping their way through another ridiculous horror flick on VHS. On the bill tonight: Chop Shop.
Chop Shop – the movie within a TV show within a movie – is itself an anthology, framed between segments with some generally incoherent thing about demons. The Widow and Charlie pop up every so often to crack a few cornball jokes. And, yeah, Skeletons in the Closet takes care to check back up on Jamie, her pest of a babysitter, and (gulp!) the murderous nutjob who just escaped from the asylum across town. Minus credits, the movie clocks in under 80 minutes, and yet it’s saddled with three framing devices. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the anthology part of this anthology.
There are really only two segments to speak of in Chop Shop. Okay, there’s technically a third – about an abused housewife imprisoned by her husband (or is she?!) – but it’s only a couple minutes long and doesn’t amount to much.
First up is a working mother and her young daughter doing the whole over-the-river-and-through-the-woods deal to visit Grandma (Leigh Rose). Despite just having had a screaming, tear-drenched argument over the phone about what a monster the old lady is, Mom has calmed down, telling her kid that Grandma is just a little strict. Maybe this tyke thought getting her hand smacked for reaching into the cookie jar was bad, but she has no idea what other horrors await in Granny’s pantry.
The other major segment revolves around a couple of masked robbers hiding out from the cops in a haunted junkyard. We’re not talking about the ghost of Fred Sanford here. (Come on! You know that Fred’s spirit ascended to be with Elizabeth once more.) When your restless spirit is known as “The Dismantler,” it’s little wonder that the boys in blue refuse to step foot inside. It kind of goes without saying that just because these badniks are safe from the police doesn’t mean they’re safe.
While there are some VHS tracking errors and even (ugh) a Grindhouse-style “scene missing” card, that’s about as far as Chop Shop goes towards selling the fact that this is supposed to be an ’80s horror anthology. Stylistically, it’s an unmistakably modern production, with over-caffeinated quick cutting, jittery frame rates, shaky-cam, rapidly changing focus, and a long list of AfterEffects plugins. They’re also punishingly long, especially the bit with the escaped-slash-trapped-again robbers, which runs out of gas long before deciding to shift gears into a supernatural slasher. They each would’ve been more impactful if trimmed by half, freeing up room for two or three more segments in the process.
I couldn’t make heads or tails of Chop Shop‘s framing device – demons taking the form of characters from the anthology, their captives darting through dangling strips of celluloid, and these malevolent entities kind of just standing around and yammering that, yup, they’re demons, all right.
The Widow and Charlie, meanwhile, are fun horror hosts. I mean, they’re no Penny Dreadful and Garou, but who is? The two of ’em have a terrific presence and mostly nail that late night horror host sense of humor. But is there an arc or a grand payoff at the end of their show? Nah, not really. Just another episode for them. Still, I’d tune in again if that’s in the cards one day.
I’m an easy mark for ’80s nostalgia, and I can’t say enough good things about Jamie, her babysitter, and the two terrific actresses who brought them to life. I would’ve liked to see Skeletons in the Closet do more with them, really. I appreciate this framing device’s feint with the “A killer’s in the house!” concept, but have to admit to finding it awfully anticlimactic. Stick around through the end credits to see that whole thing kinda/sorta/not-really pay off slightly more.
This isn’t the review I wish I were writing. The team behind Skeletons in the Closet were obviously weaned on the same comics, horror flicks, and late night TV shows I was, and this is a passion project many years in the making. It’s just that the anthology opens with such enormous potential, but it never really comes together the way I’d hoped.
Skeletons in the Closet landed a lavish special edition on Blu-ray earlier this year. If you’re okay missing out on the improved presentation along with all those other bells and whistles, or if you just want to give it a spin before shelling out $25 for a disc, the anthology is also streaming on Prime Video.