Judge Clark Douglas will bring an end to Skinwalkers, according to prophecy.
For them to live, we must die.
Skinwalkers handles this portion for us at the start of the film with the following sentences:
"Yee Nadlooshi—Navajo for Skinwalker; human beings who have gained supernatural powers through blood. Some call it a gift, others a curse. A war has been raging between those who want the curse to end and those who embrace the powers of the beast. According to Indian legend, a thirteen-year-old boy will bring an end to all the Skinwalkers."
So what about the film? A blessing or a curse? Let's bite into this DVD and find out.
Facts of the Case
The thirteen-year-old boy that the Indian legend speaks of is Timothy (Matthew Knight), who is a happy, ordinary boy. We know this because we see him smiling and laughing while running through a field with a kite. What a happy, ordinary image! No one knows how this young man will be able to get rid of all the Skinwalkers (a.k.a. werewolves), but the Skinwalkers who like being Skinwalkers (a young, magazine-cover-ready crew led by Jason Behr) intend to kill the boy.
That's not going to be as easy as they hoped, because the boy is being protected by another band of Skinwalkers who view the boy as their chance to become normal again. The leader of this group is the noble Jonas (Elias Koteas), who acts as a father to the child (no one seems to be sure who the boy's real father is). When a full moon comes, Jonas and his followers chain themselves down so that their animal instinct won't cause them to do harm to anyone. They're trying hard to be decent human beings, and to repress their carnal urges that sweep over them when they turn into werewolves. In order to be free of their curse, these Skinwalkers must discover just how this child can help them…and protect him from violent enemies in the meantime.
It's hard to begin trying to figure out where to attack this film first. Skinwalkers has so many weaknesses and soft spots that one almost feels guilty about the idea of beating up on it mercilessly…almost. This is a terrible film, and how it ever got into theaters is simply beyond me. Now I realize that werewolf movies never have been and never will be the pinnacle of artistic achievement. It's not really a good thing when The Howling is the cream of the crop. But surely it wasn't too much to expect a little bit more than this for a film being released theatrically? Almost everything about the movie feels tacky and cheap.
Let's start with the dialogue. I can't think of a single exchange in the entire movie that isn't tired and banal. The villain in the film does one of those "we're not so different, you and I" speeches. There's lots of babbling about red moons, and some flat discussions about whether it's good or bad to be a flesh-eating werewolf. "It's our true nature! We must embrace it!" "No, no…we must fight it!" All the lines are so very ominous and portentous. The script never, ever permits itself a single moment of levity or humor. When a woman discovers that a Jonas is a Skinwalker, she says, "No, this relationship can't work. You change like this every month?" I was silently pleading for Jonas to say, "Hey, you change once a month, and I don't complain!" Alas, such replies never come, and we continue to trudge humorlessly through the routine plot.
The bad dialogue in the film is accentuated by the bad acting. Most of the performances here wouldn't be accepted in a high-school play. It's practically impossible for a viewer to feel immersed in this world of werewolves, because it generally feels like you're watching a very forced performance. You can sense the assistant director standing next to you, shaking his head in despair at where his career is going. One wonders if the cast was secretly imported from another country, because judging by their misplaced emphasis on various words in their sentences, it doesn't seem that English is their first language. Worst of all are the four young actors playing the "bad" Skinwalkers. These four help pad the (fairly brief) running time by participating in numerous slow-motion montages that feel like ads for the annual autumn leather sale at The Gap. One fellow tosses his hair in the wind, the chick adjusts her outfit to make sure we can see plenty of torso and cleavage, another guy gives a wicked grin, another dude runs his hand over his shiny motorcycle, they all dramatically put on their sunglasses and leather jackets, and they ride off into the sunset behind a screeching falcon. Give me a break.
Also, considering that this is a werewolf movie, why is there so little werewolvery? (Websters, I expect to receive credit for that.) The meager forces of good werewolves and the meager forces of bad werewolves frequently meet up to do meager battles…but they don't usually battle as werewolves. They have big, noisy Western-style shoot-outs. There's even a (I cringe to say this) Sergio Leone-esque showdown in the center of a small town. Scenes like this are where the low budget seems particularly noticeable, as there are nowhere near as many extras on hand as there ought to be. Sure, it's supposed to be a small town, but not a ghost town. Anyway, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of gun battles in cinema, so one wonders why the film doesn't offer a few more beast battles and few less gun battles.
We find out once the werewolves actually do start battling during the film's action-filled finale. Stan Winston's make-up tries to make each werewolf look unique, but the jerky cinematography and the dark, sometimes impenetrable lighting leaves the viewer squinting at the screen…well, if they care enough at that point to want to figure out what's going on. Why on earth would you want to stage your climactic showdowns and last-minute revelations in as visually exasperating a setting as possible? I have a sneaking suspicion it's to hide some of the weaker CGI effects. The lighting during the rest of the film is frequently blood-red, and occasionally sepia-toned. The DVD transfer looks nice enough, but a film shot as if it's embarrassed of itself can only look so good. More impressive is the sound, which is very sharp and well-balanced.
There's a mixed bag of extras on hand to tell how this whole mess went down. A terrible eight-minute featurette flips between bland "insights" from the actors and shameless salesmanship from the producers. Slightly interesting is the pre-visualization featurette, which offers some looks at the low-budget animated storyboarding done for several scenes. The "Digital F/X comparison" is almost unintentionally funny, as we essentially see a series of shots, and then see those shots drenched in red. Impressive, huh? The deleted scenes were all deleted for a reason; half feature mundane dialogue about nothing in particular, half are padding shots of people driving/walking/riding from one place to another. But then again, that's basically how all the scenes that were left in the film can be described, too.
The saving grace of the entire DVD is the audio commentary from director James Isaac (Jason X), who is unusually honest and frank about how displeased he is with his film. In addition to having to cut the film from an R to a PG-13 rating, Isaac was apparently also forced to change a great deal of story elements and ideas. For instance, he talks about how there was originally a scene where the evil Skinwalkers turn into werewolves and attack an innocent group of people in a diner. It was supposed to be a scene that would offer a chilling look at the dark side of being a werewolf. Instead, we get a scene that supposedly makes things look a little more appealing, as the werewolves attack a group of sleazy rednecks hanging out in a grungy bar. Who cares about them? While I don't think that the basic idea here was good enough to be turned into a respectable film, it could have been considerably more credible than it is if the studio hadn't forced Isaac to make so many changes. Isaac seems rather exasperated during most of the track, and essentially says as much as he can get away with without burning any bridges…he stops short of singling out people, and he uses the phrase "that's kinda disappointing" a lot. The commentary doesn't tell us much of interest about the film, but it does offer some insights into the struggles of a young filmmaker in Hollywood trying to keep his original vision pure. It's worth a listen, and serves as an effective word of caution for aspiring young directors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the rebuttal witnesses concede that they don't really have much of a defense, they would like to point out a few things in hopes of earning the defendant a less stern sentence. Firstly, the performance of Elias Koteas needs to be singled out for the simple reason that "it doesn't suck." Koteas manages to be credible and professional in all of his scenes, and doesn't play down to the material. Second, Andrew Lockington's score is unusually high-quality for this sort of film, featuring some effective and intelligent orchestral writing rather than cheap "Boo!" noises or ambient blandness. Finally, the film offers a pleasant surprise…the back of the DVD case claims the film is 110 minutes, but it's actually only 91 minutes! Hooray!
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to watch a movie that was bad anyway get butchered even further by studio interference? If so, Skinwalkers should be a fascinating case study for you, with an insightful commentary that helps us figure out who is responsible for what. If you're wondering whether Skinwalkers is a decent werewolf flick worth checking out on a Friday night, the answer is definitively "no," with one exception: If you are drunk and hanging out with a bunch of equally drunk friends at three in the morning, it might stand a chance of seeming really funny…or maybe even scary.
Elias Koteas, Stan Winston, and Andrew Lockington are free to go. The writers, the producers, the studio executives, and the rest of the cast are guilty. Each must serve some hard time, during which they must think about what they've done to innocent viewers. Director James Isaac is released on probation due to the valuable information offered during his commentary that helped the prosecution build a case against the guilty parties. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "Making of Skinwalkers" Featurette
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