Back in the good old days of werewolf movies, before the onset of CGI, there was only one way to depict the horrific and painful transformation from man to lycanthrope: practical in-camera effects. By the time the mid-1990s came around, the fad shifted toward computerized morphing effects. Suddenly, a human being unfortunate enough to moonlight as a hairy monster did not have to go through the grueling physical and biological changes of, say, David McNaughton in 1981's "An American Werewolf in London," but could unflinchingly "cross over" in a matter of seconds. So far in 2007, two pictures have broken the mold by choosing neither route. In "Blood and Chocolate
," the characters simply turned into a ball of light that instantly put them in their wilder form. This was the epitome of a creative sell-out, but "Skinwalkers" goes one step further by not even bothering to show any transformation whatsoever. All of that stuff occurs out of the camera's sight, as do most cases of violence and bloodshed. Why make a serious, no-holds-barred horror film about werewolves, director James Isaac (2002's "Jason X
") reasons, when you can make a PG-13 kiddie show free of all the elements an audience goes to see this kind of movie for?
The "Skinwalkers" of the title are two warring groups of werewolves, one that wants to use their supernatural powers for good and one that wants to use them for evil. According to Native American lore, only a chosen young boy on his thirteenth birthday has the power to lift the curse. More specifically, that boy is Timothy (Matthew Knight), oblivious to his powerful destiny and swept up into a whirlwind of running and hiding with single mom Rachel (Rhona Mitra) after he is marked for death. Fighting on Timothy's and Rachel's side is Timothy's paternal family members, including Uncle Jonas (Elias Koteas) and cousin Katherine (Sarah Carter). Heading up the opposition is the scruffy, sexy Varek (Jason Behr); is there any other type in this genre of beastly prowlers of the night?
How does "Skinwalkers" go wrong? Let us count the ways. The cockamamie plot, devised by screenwriters James DeMonaco (2005's "Assault on Precinct 13
"), Todd Harthan and James Roday, is a mess of logic. Are we to believe that Rachel has lived with her late boyfriend's family for years and has never once discovered or even suspected that they are all werewolves? Why is it mentioned in the prologue that silver bullets are the Achilles' heel of the creatures if this little factoid is tossed out the window immediately after? Moreover, why are these werewolves described as bloodthirsty when all they usually do onscreen in rustle up a victim's clothes? Oh, and why does the dusty town Timothy and Rachel live in consist of a street of stores, an employee in each one, but not a single customer or even passerby? Was there not enough budget to pay for extras?
The stilted dialogue throughout is so banal and awkward it's as if each phrase or sentence was written wholesale from a book of clichés. The action, if one can call it that, is drained of energy and immediacy, made all the more stolid because the viewer knows that the money shots will be happening off-screen in order to retain that sacred PG-13 rating. The cast isn't much better; based on their flat and amateurish performances here, this ensemble would be more suited as a first-year high school acting troupe than people working in feature films. Matthew Knight (2006's "The Grudge 2
"), as the sought-after Timothy, isn't in danger of getting an Oscar anytime soon, but he is still young and capable of improving. That excuse does not hold water for the elder thespians.
Rhona Mitra (2007's "Shooter
") looks sleepy and perplexed as Sarah. Elias Koteas (2007's "Zodiac
"), arguably the most talented member of the cast, is reduced to yelling a lot and showing grave concern on his face. His crying scene, shot in silhouette, makes him look like he's suffering from stomach cramps. Sarah Carter (2003's "Final Destination 2
") and Shawn Roberts (2005's "Land of the Dead
"), as Katherine and boyfriend Adam, are as plastic as Barbie and Ken dolls, and coincidentally bear a passing resemblance to them. Finally, Jason Behr (2004's "The Grudge
") is all wrong as lead antagonist Varek because, no matter how hard he tries, he doesn't look anything less than nice. There is no hulking intimidation in his performance, no sense of threat, and no believability. Behr's only success is in flexing his impressive biceps.
If "Skinwalkers" is superior to "Blood and Chocolate
," it is because of Stan Winston's creature designs and make-up effects. When the werewolves show their true colors in the otherwise drab and anticlimactic finale, the looks of them are more inspired than expected. What a disappointment that they are at the service of a film that does not respect the genre or its audience. Above all else, "Skinwalkers" is dull and listless, a too-safe vanilla offering that should have gone directly to DVD. It isn't scary. It isn't well-made. It isn't original. It's just a theater auditorium filler that will be gone in a week's time. No one will miss it.