Johnny Skidmarks (1998): What’s in a Name?

If you can get past the unappealing title, Matty thinks you’ll get a kick out of this offbeat killer thriller.

By all accounts, the unfortunately named JOHNNY SKIDMARKS went from script to screen with only supporting player Jack Black aware of its name’s scatological connotations. As Black — who, at the time of the film’s making, was still a couple of years away from his breakout role in High Fidelity (2000) — recounted in Variety last year:

“I actually liked the script. Frances McDormand was in it. I did it, but the first day on the set, I said, “Guys, I’m really excited to be here, but this is just a working title, right?” They were like, “What’s wrong with the title?” I said, “Well, ‘skidmark’ means a shit stain.” They didn’t listen to me… and [the movie] skidmarked its way straight to the DVD bin.” [1]

Prior to its U.S. video release via Columbia-TriStar on 13th April 1999, Johnny Skidmarks debuted at Sundance on 18th January ‘98 as part of a Frances McDormand retrospective before playing on HBO just under a month later, on 13th February. Presumably fearing its title sounded like a Viz strip, British distributor Third Millennium dropped the Skidmarks moniker when they issued it on tape and disc in February ‘99. Instead, they rechristened it ‘The Killer Inside’; an infinitely more generic imprimatur that embellishes the film’s Se7en (1995)-ish overtures, but downplays the succulently strange edge at the heart of this absorbing neo-noir.

Unfolding in a stylised world cloaked in shadows and littered with out-of-time props and costuming, the film’s plot concerns the eponymous Johnny ‘Skidmark’ Scardino: aloof crime scene photographer by day, amoral blackmailer by night. Brought to life by a charismatically curmudgeonly Peter Gallagher, Scardino is smarting from the death of his wife and on the cusp of burnout. Potential salvation comes in the contradictory form of Alice (McDormand). A sultry femme fatale on one hand and a girl-next-door type on the other, her arrival coincides with the murders of Scardino’s fellow blackmailers (a gang completed by Michael D. Weatherred, a comb-over-sporting John Kapelos, and former Full Moon favourite Charlie Spradling) — but is she really a murderess? Or is the person bridging the gap between Scardino’s career and extracurricular activities someone closer to home with a very literal axe to grind? 

Considering the two biggest suspects at the centre of the mystery are Black’s obvious red herring and a beautifully toupéed John Lithgow in gurning Raising Cain (1992) mode, you’d have to be Helen Keller not to see where everything is going. However, as predictable as it is, Johnny Skidmarks is written, performed, and presented with such a commitment to mood and aesthetic that its shortcomings serve as breadcrumb markers. They’re flickers of familiarity; a means for us to double back in case the film’s nightmarish ambiance, laconic sense of humour, and never-ending parade of vaudevillian grotesques become too much to bear. They don’t, mind you. If anything, I wanted more unfettered weirdness before Johnny Skidmarks devolved into (admittedly well done) cat n’ mouse histrionics in its final third. But for those of a less adventurous disposition, it’s nice that the film has its own built-in safety net. 

One of four high profile projects iconic Canuxploitation company Cinépix Film Properties — they of early Cronenberg fame [2] — announced at the dawn of 1997 (alongside Stag (1997), Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 (1998), and an unrealised Steve Buscemi directorial venture that, if rumours are to be believed, eventually became Animal Factory (2000) at Franchise Pictures), Johnny Skidmarks was conceptualised and directed by John Raffo. Today, Raffo is best known for writing Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) and Peter Hyams’ ace monster flick, The Relic (1997) — though his calling card is arguably the still-unmade ‘Pincushion’: a post-apocalyptic action adventure script that Columbia snapped up for a cool half-million in the wake of the 1988 WGA strike. A former photographer himself, Raffo bandied about the core idea of Johnny Skidmarks for years until a mutual friend connected him with his co-writer, William Preston Robertson. That friend? Ethan Coen, which explains McDormand’s casting and the Coen-esque lilt to the film. Robertson, after all, penned a couple of plays with Coen in college and worked on Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Barton Fink (1991). Incidentally, when Johnny Skidmarks was in production, Robertson sold another script he’d written, ‘Meet Bobby Buttman’.

Skidmarks and Buttmen.

Freud would have a fit. 

Can/USA ● 1998 ● Thriller ● 93mins

Peter Gallagher, Frances McDormand, John Lithgow ● Dir. John Raffo ● Wri. William Preston Robertson & John Raffo

[1] As ‘Tenacious D’ Turns 20, Jack Black and Kyle Gass Look Back on Their Debut Album’s ‘Stoney Fun and Friendship’ by Jonathan Cohen, Variety, 27th September 2021.
[2] In an amusing touch, a scene from Cronenberg’s Cinépix classic, Shivers (1975), appears on a TV in Scardino’s darkroom.

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