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Film / The Skulls

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The Skulls is a 2000 American psychological thriller film starring Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Leslie Bibb, Christopher McDonald, Craig T. Nelson, and William Petersen, and directed by Rob Cohen. Its plot is based upon some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Yale University's Skull and Bones student society.

The film spawned two direct-to-video sequels, The Skulls II, directed by Joe Chappelle and starring Robin Dunne, Ashley Lyn Cafagna and The Skulls III, with Clare Kramer as the first woman member of the society.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Subverted. When Luke's best friend Will ends up dead, and he suspects his new friend Caleb. He watches the security tapes, and sees Will fall off a ledge to the floor below (which isn't enough to kill him), but Caleb grabs his legs to try to save him. He doesn't hold on, and Will falls on his head, and a cracking sound can be heard. Caleb assumes he accidentally broke Will's neck and leaves. However, Luke then continues watching and realizes Will is still alive, until Caleb's father's men arrive and finish off Will.
  • All That Glitters: Despite the possibility of having his ideal life handed to him on a silver platter as opposed to the way he was struggling before, Luke very rapidly realizes that being a Skull isn't all it's cracked up to be when he discovers how corrupt the group is.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Not so much ancient but fits all of the criteria.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: After the bad guys have cornered Luke and Chloe, one of them is about to shoot him. We hear the sound of gunshots... coming from the detective who until now has been acting like one of the bad guys but just revealed himself to be on Luke's side by taking out his would-be killer.
  • Betty and Veronica: The protagonist of the second film is torn between his girlfriend Ali, a snooty socialite, and her typical "good girl" roommate Kelly. The movie ends with him and Kelly going off together.
  • Betty and Veronica Switch: In the third film, Taylor is stunned to learn that the childhood friend who's been by her side throughout the whole ordeal is part of the conspiracy, while the guy who's supposedly been threatening her is actually a good guy who was trying to warn her.
  • Big Brother Is Watching You: Caleb warns—outright begs—Luke to stop digging into Will's death, telling him that both of their dorm rooms as well as that of Luke's friend Chloe are bugged and that The Skulls know what he's been up to.
    • Partway through the third film, Taylor finds pictures of herself from before she began campaigning to be allowed to join the group and realizes that she was set up from the very beginning.
  • Big "NO!": Caleb, after supposedly accidentally killing Will
  • Bitch Alert: The first hint of this regarding Ali in the second movie is when she urges Ryan to keep his mouth shut about the accidental death/murder he witnessed.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Subverted. Luke and Chloe stage an argument in which he dumps her—when they weren't even dating, just dealing with a lot of Unresolved Sexual Tension—in order to make the Skulls think that she's no longer important to him and therefore not worth threatening so as to keep him in line.
  • Captain Ersatz: As mentioned in the recap, the university and the "Skulls" stand in for Yale and its Skull and Bones society.
  • Car Fu: Some of the Skulls' hired goons try to run Chloe and Luke off the road.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Taylor being on the swim team comes in handy during one of the group's initiation rituals.
  • Come with Me If You Want to Live: As Chloe runs away from the bad guys trying to kill her, she's intercepted by Levritt, who tells her to get into his car and promises to take her to where Luke has been institutionalized. Realizing she doesn't have much choice, she jumps in. It turns out he was telling the truth.
  • Continuity Nod: Will's parents make an appearance in the second film.
  • Deal with the Devil: Metaphorically speaking. The Skulls can make you in whatever field you choose and let you live the life you want... at the low, low price of murder, manipulation, blackmail and fraud.
  • Ephebophile: Ames Levritt, who appears to be in his late-40's, is bedding a 19 year old girl.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Litten Mandrake, who has done numerous despicable things throughout the film, including allowing his son to think he was responsible for a murder he ordered, is utterly disgusted at co-conspirator—who is himself displaying this trope—Ames Levritt's choice of a lover, even while freely admitting to his own infidelities—"My God, Ames, she's only 19!"
  • False Rape Accusation: Ryan's girlfriend Ali makes this against him in the second film.
  • Fiendish Fraternity: The Skulls. Murder and wholesale corruption, to the point where the fraternity acts as a state within the state when it's members are concerned, are only the tip of the iceberg.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Luke and Caleb hit it off during hazing and become even closer as the film progresses.
  • Frame-Up: Ryan is falsely accused of rape in the second film, while in the third, Taylor is framed for murder because the Skulls want her father, a prominent politician, in their pocket.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Luke, Chloe, and Will live in dorm rooms that are bigger and nicer than some people's apartments, even though it's repeatedly stated that Luke is struggling financially. And even with Chloe's wealth, dorm rooms simply do not look like that.
  • Groin Attack: While grappling with a random mook, Luke tasers him in the balls.
  • Happy Ending Override: At the end of the first film, Levritt promises to change the group for the better, but the sequels reveal that it's just as corrupt as before.
  • He Knows Too Much: Basically why all three protagonists of each film are in danger throughout.
  • High-Class Call Girl: During the welcoming party for the new members, a group of beautiful young women who are in all likelihood this are brought into the room to be paired with them.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: A heroic version. It never seemed to occur to Levritt that the Skulls' habit of monitoring their members—something he likely fully approved of and participated in—would come back to haunt him until Mandrake presents him with photos of him and his 19-year old mistress.
  • I Have This Friend: Luke reconciles with Chloe using this line, even though they both know he's referring to himself.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: When Ames Levritt refuses to go along with the plan to send Luke to a mental hospital, declaring, "I have my limits", Litten Mandrake scoffs, "Really?", then calls him out on his hypocrisy with proof of his extramarital affair, pointing out that these supposed "limits" don't include not sleeping with a 19-year old cheerleader. He also truthfully reminds Luke that Will committed breaking and entering, theft, and trespassing.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Will's murder, made to look like a suicide. That said, Luke is suspicious from the get-go—Will wasn't depressed and he knows he was snooping into the background of The Skulls.
  • Manipulative Bastard: At the film's conclusion, it's implied that Levritt engineered the whole thing so that he could take over the group. On the plus side, he sincerely wants to change it for the better.
  • My Rule Fu Is Stronger than Yours: The Skulls rule book has, as stated multiple times "A rule for any and every situation" and all sides spend most of the film invoking obscure rules throughout to help their cause over others.
  • The Powers That Be: The Skulls control America in the setting.
  • Rags to Riches: Luke goes from a working class schlub who's had to struggle all his life and is only at this prestigious university via scholarship to having $20,000 in the bank and a guaranteed acceptance to the law school of his choice before he's even applied, all thanks to membership in The Skulls.
  • Rape as Drama: Subverted in the third film. Shortly after her induction ceremony, Taylor takes a mandatory drug test for her swim team and is informed that a date-rape drug has been found in her system. Her doctor and coach gently ask her if she's been assaulted, but she's certain that she wasn't. She does realize that the sedative was given to knock her out and leave her with amnesia for the night's events—and set her up for murder.
  • Recycled In Space: Several film critics likened this movie to a college version of The Firm.
  • Rules Lawyer: The Skulls say "We live by the Rules, we die by the Rules" and their rules supersede the outside worlds rules. Memorizing the rule book is required for all members.
  • Scary Black Man: Subverted with the detective investigating Will's death, as he acts in a very intimidating manner towards Luke before it's revealed that he's been Luke's ally all the while.
  • Schmuck Bait: After Luke steals the incriminating tape, he's chased by the Skulls' mooks into a dark alley. At this point, they're ambushed by Luke's friends, revealing that it's actually he who lured them there.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Basically how the Skulls operate. Their motto is "A Skull above any other", their rules supersede the laws everyone else has to live by, its ruling councillors are all high ranking business and political leaders, and they can entice new members with things like high class call girls and acceptance letters to schools they didn't even apply to yet.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Becoming filthy rich overnight as well as a guaranteed acceptance to the law school of his choice—before he's even applied—and essentially having his entire life handed to him on a silver platter as opposed to the way he was struggling before is NOT worth ignoring his friend's murder and the cover-up of numerous other illegal activities that the Skulls are involved in.
  • Shouldn't We Be in School Right Now?: You can count on one hand the number of times the college student protagonists are seen in class or studying. Quite glaring in Luke's case, considering that he's pre-law.
  • Shower of Love: Luke and Chloe hide out in his bathroom with the shower running to mask the sound of their voices, as his room is bugged. She declares her love for him, they start kissing, and sure enough. . .
  • The Smurfette Principle: In the third film, protagonist Taylor Brooks campaigns to join the Skulls, pointing out that she has all the qualifications—along with her father having been a member—and that if she were a man, there'd be no question. The leaders relent after warning her that she will be subjected to the same hazing as the male inductees. She succeeds, but of course, it was all a setup for the group's ominous intentions.
  • Soft Water: Luke and Caleb fall from the top of a building into what is likely a shallow moat. They are of course, unharmed.
  • Students' Secret Society: The film is centred around the main character's efforts to find his place among the eponymous college-based secret society, which reportedly has influence all over the school and the upper echelons of American society. For good measure, since it's based on Yale's infamous Skull and Bones society, there's also a lot of sinister rituals and corruption going on behind the scenes.
  • Ten Paces and Turn: Luke challenges Caleb to a duel at the Skulls' private island. After Luke and Caleb take their ten paces and turn around, Luke drops his gun and tries to convince Caleb of the truth and that he is not responsible for Will's murder.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: The friendship of Luke, Will, and Chloe, even though it doesn't last the entire film.
  • Uptown Girl: Luke offhandedly mentions that Chloe's rich, indicating that this is the reason he hasn't told her how he feels about her.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The basic plot of the third film—female determined to join male-only group—is vaguely reminiscent of Shannon Faulkner's campaign to enroll at The Citadel.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy:
    • Levritt outright says this to Luke at the end of the film, when Luke has not only managed to expose the corruption of The Skulls, he refuses to have anything more to do with the group despite Levritt's insistence that he will make changes. This line has made some fans of the movie speculate that Levritt is in fact Luke's Disappeared Dad.
    • Caleb, sadly, is craving this from his father, who is clearly disappointed in his lack of ambition or desire to follow in his footsteps.
    • Taylor clearly wants this from her father as well, although he's actually already very proud of her. He just doesn't believe she should join the Skulls.
  • Wham Line: "He's challenging you to a duel, Caleb."
  • What Did I Do Last Night??: Taylor returns to the special separate room that's been set up for her during the initiation weekend (since she's the only female) only to find her boyfriend there. She starts to tell him that she didn't send him the note telling him to meet her there, only to collapse. She awakens the next morning covered in blood with her room in disarray and soon finds his body. Unusually, despite having been drugged, she's still sure that she didn't kill him and that she's being framed.