Indie/microbudget features can sometimes have a rough, do-it-yourself quality. For his feature film debut Sheep Skin, writer/director Kurtis Spieler expands on his 2007 short of the same name and embraces the rough edges to produce an atmospheric thriller with a Punk aesthetic. Based on the cover art and description, one would think that Sheep Skin is a “werewolf movie”, but a central theme of the film is that things are not always as they appear, and this extends to the film itself. Regardless of whether or not a werewolf is indeed involved (I will leave out that detail, as it would spoil the plot of the film), Sheep Skin ultimately is a tense and suspenseful character study topped off with healthy splashes of blood and bits of gore.
The film opens as Todd (Laurence Mullaney), a local businessman, is kidnapped by assailants wearing pig masks as he leaves his office. They take him to a warehouse and handcuff him to a chair. Removing their masks, they reveal themselves to be members of The Dick Punchers, a local Punk band. Their leader, Schafer (Michael Schantz) explains that they have kidnapped Todd because they suspect that he 1) killed Schafer’s sister and 2) did so because he is a werewolf. Todd (understandably) proclaims his innocence on both counts. As the night wears on, the tension of the situation weighs on all parties involved. Is Todd truly a “wolf in a sheep skin?” Some members of the band begin to doubt this, and Schafer begins to doubt himself and his decisions. Is Schafer really as tough as he appears to be, or is he a “sheep in a wolf’s skin?” Is he able “to kill a man to to kill a monster?” The appearance of a couple of unexpected “guests” helps push the tension over the top, leading to a bloody finale (which may or may not feature a werewolf).
While the acting skills are not even across the whole cast, the overall level is far higher that one usually sees in indie/microbudget productions. Michael Schantz plays the the leader Schafer. [Note: “Schafer” is the German word for “shepherd.”] It is his character that drives the film, and Schantz’s acting skills are definitely up to the task. Schafer’s struggles with what he and his band are doing and with his own self-doubt are key to the tension in the film. He comes across as tough and aggressive at first, but as the story progresses, this facade starts to crack as he wrestles with his doubt and his decisions. Schantz’s Schafer may not be as firm and decisive a leader as he wants to portray himself. Laurence Mullaney does an equally good job as Todd, the businessman who also may not be who/what he appears to be. Mullaney’s Todd spends a goodly portion of the film handcuffed to a chair, but he still manages to give a full performance.Todd comes across a sympathetic family man at some moments, but at other times, he gives off a duplicitous and creepy vibe. Much like Schafer, the viewer is never quite sure about Todd’s true nature. This heightens the tension, as the viewer’s’ sympathies are torn between the two leads. The actors portraying the secondary characters are not given quite as much to do, range-wise, but they do well with what they are given. Their performances are little broader than the two male leads, but that helps contribute to the Punk vibe of the film. Dylan (Ria Burns-Wilder) is Schafer’s overly enthusiastic girlfriend who may just crack under the strain. (Burns-Wilder also provides lively vocals on the rousing closing theme.) The band is rounded out by Marcus (Bryan Manley Davis), the group’s conscience, and Boston Clive (Zach Gillette), the band’s nearly psychotic drummer. Both are equally unstable, but in drastically different ways. Throw in the two unexpected “guests” (Jamie Lyn Bagley and Mark Resnik), and the stage is set for everyone’s facades to crumble.
In addition to the strong performances by the two leads, Sheep Skin’s other big asset is its sense of atmosphere. Tension rises as the film goes on, drawing in the viewer and helping to invest them in the story. Dante Vallee’s subtle but oppressive score is a key contributor to the growing dread. The oppressive but almost subliminal nature of the soundtrack helps to amp up the tension as the film progresses. Much of the score consists of low frequency, droning, ambient sounds. It reminds me of the ever-present “hum” of the ship in Star Trek. The viewer may not even notice that it is there, as, at first, it can be mistaken for the background sounds of warehouse machinery. The warehouse location itself is another factor in building the atmosphere of the film. Cinematographer Adrian Peng Correia takes advantage of the dark shadows and odd corners of the warehouse location to provide a sense of the unknown. Even though most of the film takes place within a single room of the warehouse, the use of multiple, camera angles provides visual interest. The film never feels “stagey” and is nicely kinetic without being overly so. Shooting using Red digital cameras, Peng Correia makes excellent use of light and shadow, adding an almost neo-noir feel to the scenes.
The film is shot on a budget of $25,000, putting it squarely in the realm of microbudget cinema. Director Spieler makes the most of this budget; the film feels bigger than its meager price tag. Where the rough edges do show, Spieler uses this to enhance and embrace the film’s Punk aesthetic. Punk is not about polish; it is about feeling, intensity, and a Do-It-Yourself / No-Need-to-be-Perfect attitude. This especially can be seen in the film’s makeup and special effects. The blood work is fairly decent, but the other effects betray their microbudget nature. Instead of seeing this as a liability, Spieler sees it as a challenge. He takes advantage of old-school methods of keeping the less successful effects partially obscured in the shadows and only shows them in quick cuts and odd camera angles. This, for the most part, works. Besides, by the time in the proceedings that the blood and effects work show up, the viewer is so invested in the characters and the story that it is easy to overlook the rough edges.
Things are not always as they seem in the world of Sheep Skin. Is it a werewolf film? Ultimately, it does not matter if a werewolf is in the movie or not (and I am not saying either way). Even if a werewolf does show up, that is not the focus of the film, for it is more of a character study / thriller than anything else. Writer/director Kurtis Spieler and his cast and crew make the most of their meager budget to produce a film that looks and feels bigger than one would expect given the resources. Where the small budget does show through, the filmmakers embrace it, using it to their advantage to add to the Punk aesthetic of the film. Sheep Skin is an entertaining and tense thriller. It draws the viewer in and keeps them guessing as to just what would happen to these characters all the way to the end.
Sheep Skin (4 / 5)