**½/**** Image B+ Sound C
starring Natasha Henstridge, Angus MacFadyen, Liam Waite, Peter Fonda
screenplay by John Lau
directed by Darrell James Roodt
by Bill Chambers Second Skin is centred in and around a used bookshop where owner Sam Kane (Angus MacFadyen) cares more about indulging in the dog-eared pulp than making a living. Crystal (Natasha Henstridge) wanders in looking for a job, though, and while Sam doesn't get enough customers to warrant an employee, he could use a tall blonde woman in his life, and tentatively hires her. Satisfied, she walks backwards out the door, bidding adieu, and is thwacked by a car in a hit-and-run. When Crystal comes to, in a hospital bed, she's amnesiac. In what must be a rare act of altruism for him, Sam volunteers to assist Crystal in a rummage for her forgotten past.
Perhaps inevitably, this finds Sam looking backwards as well, to a homicide/suicide that left his lover and her husband dead. That experience broke him, but Crystal, of course, rekindles the fire behind his eyes. I appreciated the metaphorical value of her hammy last name ("Ball"), how it contributes to this aspect of the story: Sam sees his future in her. The movie won me over, to a point, with its shameless retro corniness--the amnesia, the names (even Sam Kane has a Chandler ring), the femme fatale. Director Darrell James Roodt, a long way from his South African musical Sarafina!, doesn't pretend he's making something he's not.
Or does he? Starting with its title, which only makes sense as bait, Second Skin seems like softcore porn on the surface. The distributors (Artisan and Canada's Alliance Releasing) lead expectations, what with Henstridge in a bathtub on the video box, that Roodt, who liberally employs those icy colours of Cinemax flicks and dresses Henstridge in a variety of dresses tight as Tensor bandages, all but follows through on. It's a shame that some may overlook the film's quirky strengths because it aims to tease. MacFadyen (Braveheart's Robert the Bruce), for one, is aging into a rawer, huskier Johnny Depp, while Peter Fonda adds another singular villain to his repertoire post-The Limey.
I also got silly over the final shot, a heartless denouement right out of James M. Cain or even Patricia Highsmith. Sure, Second Skin is convoluted trash (more plot twists than actual plot are crammed into its 90-minute running time), but its hard-boiled voice is too earnest to dismiss, and I recommend the film inasmuch as one can dime-store fiction/straight-to-video rabble. If portable DVD players ever replace the paperback, Second Skin has "beach read" all over it.
Artisan's sparse disc presents the film three ways (1.85:1 letterbox, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the rarely used 'pan-and-scan on the fly,' which blows up the image to 1.33:1 fullscreen with disregard for side information) and allows you the viewer to toggle between them. In either incarnation, the transfer looks nice, if a hair soft. The Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (English and French) that accompany it imply TV-movie audio "opened up" but lacking in nuance. (Yes, I'm also flabbergasted that Artisan's Second Skin received the six-channel treatment while their Dune remake did not--on R1 DVD, at least.) The biggest problem, and I don't know whether this is a mastering defect or the fault of my Pioneer player, is that dialogue is about a half-second out-of-synch with mouth movements, causing everybody's voices to sound ADR'd. Extras: cast/crew bios, and a trailer whose "redband" status is misleading. Originally published: August 13, 2001.
91 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; CC; DVD-5; Region One; Artisan