Werewolves on motorcycles are certainly something you don’t see everyday. Or werewolves that pack more heat than Dirty Harry at an NRA convention, for that matter. Then again, the way these werewolves slaughter people, leaving a trail of carnage wherever they go, you’d expect some kind of massive nationwide manhunt would have been underway for them decades ago, or at least as long as they’ve been around, which we’re told has been for some time. Apparently not, according to the film, where the werewolves, with their leather outfits and overt gun-packing sensibilities, ride through the countryside on the main roads after their prey without a single cop in sight. Law enforcement is non-existent in this universe, it would seem.
As “Skin Walkers” opens, it’s already diving into its own version of the werewolf mythology. To wit: there are two groups of werewolves, one that wants the curse to be over, while the other side does not. Stuck in the middle of this tug-of-war is single mother Rachel (Rhona Mitra) and her son, Tim (Matthew Knight), the product of Rachel’s dalliance with a werewolf (or skin walker, as they call themselves), though Rachel does not know this last part. (The film seems to go out of its way to avoid the word “werewolf”.) On the eve of a prophecy about to come true, that of a red moon appearing four days before Tim’s power (said to have the ability to alter the werewolf curse forever) is revealed, the werewolf bad guys are desperate to find Tim and kill him. It’s bad enough growing up, but when you have werewolves on motorcycles after you? Sheesh, tough birthday there, kid.
In its favor, “Skin Walkers” is a fast mover, throwing out its mythology without allowing the audience time to consider the wackiness of it all. Unfortunately, much of the acting is awful, and the script has logistics and plot hole problems. Then again, we are talking about a moderately budgeted werewolf movie, so picking on the film for its lack of Oscar-caliber acting is somewhat disingenuous on my part, I’ll confess. Likewise, script problems are to be expected when the story calls for the moon turning blood red for four days straight, and this somehow hasn’t caused a worldwide panic, leading to riots, civil unrest, and religious exaltations. Then again, that’s the real world, and this is the movie world according to “Skin Walkers”. Sure, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but just go with it.
If you’re looking forward to the werewolf-on-werewolf battles, you’ll be mostly disappointed. The film is all about gunplay until the final 15 minutes or so, when the filmmakers finally put their budget to use and allow the werewolves to throw down at an abandoned refinery, the favorite ending locale of most chase movies. Even then, you won’t be getting anything approaching the ferocious creature action of “Underworld: Evolution”, but that’s more the result of “Skin Walkers'” lack of budget than anything else. Likewise with the film’s general lack of “wolf out” moments. What we do get is serviceable, with special effects supposedly rendered by the legendary Stan Winston, but I don’t see anything innovative here. Maybe Winston’s company just fronted the fake fur?
“Skin Walkers” is not all bad. There are some nice moments, and certainly the cinematography, once you get used to the redness of it all, strikes the right mood for the narrative at hand. The film also gets bonus points for turning the werewolf conventions on its head, with the wolves relying almost entirely on guns rather than wolf brawn. Unfortunately director Jim Isaac is no John Woo, so a lot of the film’s gunplay is not exactly going to wow anyone with their unconvincing choreography. The script also provides a bombshell plot twist about halfway in, but the moment is played so badly by the actors, especially Jason Behr as Varek, that the surprise dies a loud thud.
The scene mentioned above also reminds you that “Skin Walkers'” only credible actor is the always fantastic Elias Koteas, who carries much of the film with his usual superb performance. Koteas plays the stout Jonas, Tim’s uncle, who must save the boy at the cost of everything he holds dear. Like the rest of the good skin walkers, Jonas considers his wolf side a curse, and will do whatever it takes to cure it. He is helped by the caretakers, Native Americans who have made it their life’s work to help out the good skin walkers, who are able to contain their thirst for human blood by never having drank it in the first place. In order to maintain this status quo, the skin walkers are strapped into heavy restraints every night in order to cage their wolf hungers.
Without a doubt, this is one of the film’s more creative concoctions, although it is never really established if the skin walkers wolf out every night, or just on certain nights, such as on full moons? According to the movie, it seems to be the former (unless I am mistaken), which would, one assume, be a major pain in everyone’s neck. And how exactly did Jonas and company manage to hide from Rachel the fact that he and everyone else in their faux town has to literally strap themselves into their basements every night for the last thirteen years? Then again, why ask why? It’s a movie about werewolves that ride around motorcycles shooting people. It is what it is.
Things bode well for a sequel, with Rhona Mitra’s character primed to take over Elias Koteas’ protection racket. By the end of the film, Rachel has taken on the Sarah Connor role to protect her son (shades of “T2″ are everywhere, including the refinery, the shotgun, etc), although it will be interesting to see if Mitra does in fact return in the role. “Skin Walkers” was made in 2006, and Mitra’s career has moved onto bigger budgeted genre movies, including the upcoming Neil Marshall sci-fi horror “Doomsday”. With all the money spent on the PR for the first one, and name recogition established, you can expect a sequel (or sequels) in 2008 and beyond.
James Isaac (director) / James DeMonaco, Todd Harthan, James Roday (screenplay)
CAST: Jason Behr … Varek
Elias Koteas … Jonas
Rhona Mitra … Rachel
Kim Coates … Zo
Natassia Malthe … Sonja
Matthew Knight … Timothy
Sarah Carter … Katherine