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‘Knives and Skin’: The neo-noir thriller, made in and around Chicago, overflows with haunting visuals, eccentric characters

Social satire’s strange sights and sounds are sure to stick with you.

Ireon Roach (from left), Grace Smith and Kayla Carter in “Knives and Skin.”
IFC Midnight

Days after I saw Jennifer Reeder’s cool and badass and blazingly original social satire/horror thriller “Knives and Skin,” snippets of the haunting neo-noir visuals and the memorable musical numbers were still flashing across my mind.

• A girl in a school band uniform, left bloodied and perhaps dead near the edge of a lake.

• Bedrooms bathed in creepy colors and decorated like art installations on display in a hipster-frequented museum.

• A classroom in which a teacher’s shirt is almost the exact same shade of turquoise as the metal chairs attached to the desks, just … because.

• The reflection of a high school swimming pool, dancing across the ceiling during a bizarre exchange of goods for money between a student and the principal.

• A girl lying in the grass and singing the opening lines of “Promises, Promises” by Naked Eyes.

• Beautiful, chilling, renditions of 1980s New Wave youth anthem classics such as “Blue Monday,” “Melt With You,” “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” and “Our Lips Are Sealed”:

Hush my darling, don’t you cry

Quiet, angel, forget their lies

Pay no mind what they say, it doesn’t matter anyway

Our lips are sealed …

Once you see this movie and hear that song in the particular context invoked here, you’ll never think of it in the same way again.

Filmed in neighborhoods on the Northwest Side, northwest suburban Melrose Park and southwest suburban Lemont, “Knives and Skin” is a psychological head trip of a murder mystery with a strong feminist bent and nods to everything from the original “Twin Peaks” TV show to films such as “Carrie” and “Heathers” and “The Stepford Wives” and “Magnolia” and even Atom Egoyan’s 1994 minor classic “Exotica.”

Also, we see references to figures such as Joan of Arc, the American political activist Angela Davis and the Belgian avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman sprinkled in for good measure.

There’s a LOT of movie in this movie.

One night in a nondescript, seemingly quiet industrial Midwestern town, Raven Whitley’s sweet-faced Carolyn Harper is at the lake near the quarry with the horny jock jerko Andy (Ty Olwin).

“You’re such a nobody,” she says, semi-teasingly, before carving her initial into his forehead with her thumbnail.

They embrace. She touches him. He wants more. She says no.

He heads for the car. She falls and hits her head. Blood begins to stream down her face. “Help me!” she cries as he peels off.

That’s the last time anyone saw Carolyn Harper. Sort of.

And that’s all I’ll say about that.

The disappearance of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) is the central mystery of “Knives and Skin.”
IFC Midnight

Reactions to Carolyn’s disappearance range from the strange and disturbing to the REALLY strange and disturbing, e.g., when a teacher tries to relate to a class by telling them, “When I was in high school, a girl went missing too. Nobody knew where she was for like, a week. Then, all of a sudden, her body washed up on the lake during our senior picnic.”

“What was her name?” asks a student.

“I don’t remember,” comes the reply.

Geez. Get that teacher a Golden Apple!

Like the town of Twin Peaks, this outwardly quiet community is populated by eccentric (to say the least) characters harboring dark secrets. Some of the residents are prone to erratic and hysterical behavior; others comport themselves as if they’re heavily medicated and insulated from the normal/expected range of emotions.

Consider the mother who decorates a small poster with an abundance of gold glitter, explaining to her daughter, “I’m making a flyer for that missing girl. I saw the ones her mother’s been putting up and they’re hideous.”

“You spelled her name wrong,” point out the daughter.

“I’m not going to start over now, I worked really hard on this,” responds Mom.

“Knives and Skin” weaves a complicated, sometimes convoluted web, as Carolyn’s classmates often skewer each other with “Mean Girls” putdowns, while various parents and other adults engage in affairs and deception and kinky hobbies. Carolyn’s whereabouts almost become an afterthought, nearly drowned out by the dizzying cacophony of tragic-comic subplots.

Grace Smith, Kayla Carter, Ireon Roach, Audrey Francis, Steppenwolf Ensemble great Kate Arrington and longtime artist-writer-actor-local treasure Tony Fitzpatrick are among the standouts in the excellent cast. Marika Engelhardt turns in perhaps the most memorable performance of all as Carolyn’s mother, who responds to the loss of her daughter with a complex, Shakespearean range of emotions and actions.

Writer-director Reeder pays great attention to the smallest of details; she paints virtually every corner of every frame with craft and care. Reeder’s vision is enhanced by Christopher Rejano’s lush and vibrant cinematography and Nick Zinner’s mood-setting score.

This movie rocks.