The quiet Midwest ’burb in Knives and Skin, where the disappearance of a local cheerleader turns the whole place on its already screwy head, could exist just outside the borders of Twin Peaks. Writer/director Jennifer Reeder appreciates the geographic proximity.
“I’ve been a David Lynch fan for a long, long time, partially for the way that he will point the camera at a small town and suggest that small town is the portal to the fourth dimension. And that people are extraordinary in their remarkable ordinariness,” says Reeder, whose film festival darling next stops at Montreal’s Fantasia this July.
“My town adjacent to Twin Peaks is racially much more diverse and bathed in a feminist pink light. That differentiates it. There were other film and visual elements [that inspired me]. I have been a longtime fan of other teen films and of the horror and thriller genres. But there’s a definite trajectory between what I’m doing and David Lynch.”
Viewers will notice similarities between Reeder’s feature and her previous shorts, besides touching on issues from the current zeitgeist.
“Before this, I made a series of short films dealing with similar themes: adolescent girls in transition, their parents, coming of age, dark elements, dark humor elements, singing elements,” she says. “They took some liberties with lighting and art direction. So, I started writing Knives and Skin, not based on actual characters from any of the previous shorts, but really with those same themes in mind. I started writing the script before the #metoo movement. It’s a coincidence that this film has elements of consent, gender discrimination and young female empowerment and the idea of female friendship as a survival strategy. I wanted Knives and Skin to flirt with elements of horror and thriller, magical realism. It’s not a musical, but there’s lots of musical elements in it. It’s a cinema salad. It’s a film that’s maybe not for everybody, but for people who are willing to sit down and go down that weird ride with us, they’re gonna really love it.”
Representing those fantastical elements is the character of missing teen Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), whose date with the school jock goes horribly wrong.
“I set out to make a film that took on a very problematic trope of a lot of horror films, which is a dead girl,” Reeder says. “I wanted to make a feminist film that dealt with horror issues that had a dead girl at its center. She had to be this symbol; Carolyn Harper is emblematic. She’s this blonde, blue-eyed high school girl who’s in the band. She had to reoccur throughout the film in a meaningful, impactful way so that her disappearance wasn’t in vain, and she wasn’t disposable or forgettable in the ways that she literally reanimates in a very subtle way. I describe her as a kind of a ghost and zombie. At the very least, her body is willing itself back into the hearts and minds of that entire town, which just felt really important.”
Knives and Skin’s frequent musical interludes, where the girls’ choir breaks out into old songs such as Naked Eyes’ “Promises Promises,” further illustrate the film’s offbeat approach. “By using ’80s music, I can inject some of my autobiography,” Reeder says. “I was an ’80s teenager, and those are all songs that I put on a mixtape. They are also the songs of the parents’ generation [in the film], so there’s something in there about these girls reclaiming songs of their parents’ era. The musical scenes are really meant to provide a sense of actual harmony, synchronicity, and beauty. The songs have been rearranged as lamentations, lullabies, or eulogies even. They’re just genuinely beautiful. There’s so much toughness and heartbreak in this film that the audience needs a break. Those choral moments, both ones that are diegetic to the film and the ones coming out of something that’s a little more fantastical, are really meant to provide that sense of beauty and harmony.”
Ever since it launched at February’s Berlin Film Festival, Knives and Skin has been enjoying a robust life on the fest circuit. NYC’s Tribeca Film Festival gave the movie a prominent late-night slot this spring.
“I’m actually super-pleased that Knives and Skin played in the midnight section,” Reeder says. “This is a film that’s more genre-bending or a genre-borrowing than it is fully committed to the teen, thriller or horror musical. The midnight section is where the genre films of Tribeca live. It was really nice to be in this small, fully-vetted group of films. It’s a very interesting time to pay attention to women who are taking on genre, not just horror and thriller, but even sci-fi or fantasy.
“I hope that Knives and Skin resonates with people who haven’t seen my shorts,” Reeder concludes, “who don’t necessarily know what to expect, who may be full genre fans and who get on board with this little genre-bending/borrowing ride through this small Midwest town.”