No Sleep October: Pop Skull

An award-winning activist and writer, Richard Propes is the founder/publisher of TheIndependentCritic.com and a charter member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Richard is the author of The Hallelujah Life and, in 2018, produced the short film Edmund Evans is a Rapist, based upon a true story of sexual assault on a college campus. 

A paraplegic / double amputee with spina bifida, Richard has traveled over 6,000 miles by wheelchair since 1989 on an annual event he calls The Tenderness Tour, a grassroots effort to break the cycle of violence and to create a peaceful home for every child. On October 2, 2019, Richard will begin wheeling from downtown Indy’s Monument Circle on his 30th Anniversary Tenderness Tour. He will wheel at least 571 laps around Monument Circle — each lap representing the life of an Indiana child who died as a result of violence. Richard will wheel 24/7 regardless of the weather and expects the effort to take three to four days.

Along the way, he’s raising funds for 10 Indiana nonprofits working to improve the lives of children and families. Find out more about his Tenderness Tour here.

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The first memory I have in my life is from when I was 5 years old. I vaguely remember waking up from what felt like a hallucinogenic fog. I was in a bed, but it wasn’t my own. I looked around, but my eyes couldn’t or wouldn’t focus. 

I felt disoriented, though I’m positive “disoriented” wasn’t a word I knew at 5. I looked down and realized I was naked. I looked up and realized I wasn’t alone. To this day, I’ve never been able to focus my eyes well enough to see clearly who that was lying on top of me and doing whatever that strange figure in the corner told her to do. 

That strange figure? For some reason, I can see him clearly. 

His name is Roy. I’m guessing he’s in his 70s, with a shriveled-up penis and gray pubes, staring at both myself and this mysterious girl tauntingly. I can still see him to this day, a glazed-over look possessing his face as he snaps photo after photo after photo. 

I don’t remember ever waking up. I don’t remember getting dressed. I don’t remember ever leaving Roy’s apartment. 

Isn’t that kind of a fucked-up first memory? 

I’ve tried hard to remember something else. Anything else. I know, or at least I’m pretty sure, that I existed before this memory at 5 years old. But I’ve never been able to track down a memory to prove it. 

The truth is that most of my childhood — and a great deal of my early adult years — feels like a hallucinogenic fog. There are people who have happy childhoods. There are people who have normal childhoods. Then there are people for whom childhood is the thing they wrestle with for the rest of their lives. 

I’m one of those. I could probably be described as emotionally delayed because somewhere along the way, something got destroyed and it never came up. 

Sometimes I think it was my soul. But I also tend to be a little melodramatic. You get that way when you’ve been sexually assaulted more than you’ve been loved. 

For years, the world of indie horror was my salvation. It was the only place where I could find the words and images that matched the horrors in my mind. I preferred the low-budget world, where it seemed like similarly damaged minds created stories about similarly damaged people just trying to find a way to survive.

Eventually, my life started to turn in the right direction. I started to feel love or, at least, something like it. The cycle of violence that had long dominated my existence seemed to subside, replaced by my own almost primal instinct to make the world a better place for other people. 

Somehow I started making better and healthier choices. I started finding healthier relationships and friendships and ways of dealing with the memories that will likely never go away. 

The darkness is still there. I just don’t let it hurt me anymore. 

In 2007, fledgling filmmaker Adam Wingard directed a $3,000 psychological horror film that took home the Best Feature Film Prize at the 2008 Indianapolis International Film Festival.  

The film was Pop Skull, and it completely fucked with my mind in all the right ways — such a hallucinogenic experience that the film opens with a spoken caution to those who suffer from seizures that its imagery may, in fact, trigger them.

Pop Skull follows the story of Daniel (co-writer Lane Hughes) as he goes into a rapid-fire downward spiral involving flashbacks of a murder once committed in his backyard, grief over a recently ended relationship and an increasingly mind-controlling drug habit that makes all of this feel like it’s either one gigantic hallucination or the psychotic breakdown of a young man who can seemingly barely breathe without some sort of a traumatic break. 

Man, I can’t tell you how much I identified with Daniel. 

Also co-written by Wingard, Pop Skull was his second feature film after Home Sick and a film that established him as a director to watch — with his Indy Film Fest prize and the Jury Award at the Boston Underground Film Festival. 

It’s difficult to express what demons Pop Skull helped me process, but I live with a mind that frequently feels fractured — and somehow Wingard seems to understand the fractured mind better than most indie directors. Pop Skull is an exhausting yet oddly exhilarating experience, a unique blend of acid horror and psychological torture that simultaneously arouses and horrifies. It’s the sort of experimental film many low-budget indie filmmakers have attempted to make; the vast majority have failed. 

Wingard succeeds wildly. 

Pop Skull feels like any number of small-town melodramas one might see at an independent film festival, though it amps up the experience through the drug-addled Daniel and his tortured mind that never lets you quite figure out what’s real, what’s fantasy and what’s somewhere i between. 

Daniel, whom Hughes plays to achingly horrifying perfection, spends most of his days in a fog that vacillates between hallucinogenic and just plain psychotic. His only friend is Jeff (Brandon Carroll), whose existence is more ordinary than Daniel’s. He’s your ordinary average Joe, a “work all day, drink all night” type of fellow with a beautiful girlfriend (Hannah Hughes) whose vibe toward Daniel seems to exist somewhere between the broad lines of lust and maternal compassion. 

The lust isn’t really reciprocated, since it’s hard to fuck or trust when you’re hallucinating every other minute or so. 

Wingard’s ensemble cast is simply extraordinary here, immersing themselves in Wingard’s vision for the film and throwing caution to the wind despite the fact they were reportedly compensated a mere $100 a day over the course of the film’s less-than-one-week shoot. Pop Skull is one of those films where it’s all about the passion for the project, and that passion shines through in virtually every moment of the psychologically jarring film. 

Lane Hughes is authentic, risk-taking and haunting as the rapidly disintegrating Daniel, giving off a vibe that is part Charles Manson and part Michael Pitt from Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. The film opens with Daniel narrating the story of the murder that occurred in his backyard; it’s a haunting story that never gives you the chance to bond with Daniel, yet somehow Hughes makes you care about him anyway over the course of the film as his behavior worsens in frightening ways. 

Carroll’s turn as Jeff is more straightforward, his fierce loyalty to Daniel completely unwarranted yet without question for the vast majority of the film. Over the course of the film, Carroll adds quietly adds layers to Jeff before pulling them away by film’s end. While it’s a much more low-key performance than Lane Hughes’s, it’s just as riveting. Hannah Hughes is given less to do, yet what she does is compelling with equal parts bewildering. 

Wingard’s cinematography is, especially for a low-budget film, rather magnificent as he perfectly incorporates DigiBeta vid lensing and surprisingly effective special effects served up by Jonathan Thornton to give the film a sort of weary, stained visual appearance that flips about throughout the film. These are cosmic, inventive and, yes, potentially seizure-inducing lensing and special effects. The thumping techno-score provided by Kyle McKinnon and Justin Leigh is immersive and suffocating and a full-on sensory overload that works with the story and never hits a false note. 

While I’ve never been an addict, I remember sitting in my seat and feeling like I identified with Daniel on a primal level that made sense. It simultaneously soothed and horrified me. It also made me feel less alone. There are movies that inspire. There are movies that entertain. There are movies that educate. There are movies that terrify. 

There are also movies that simply fuck with your mind and never let you go. They alter your consciousness and tap you into the darkest spaces of your life experience. Pop Skull is one of these films, an exhilarating mindfuck of a motion picture that will simultaneously haunt you and heal you and horrify you. 

Pop Skull will also never let you go. 




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