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August 9, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | August 9, 2007 |

Movies firmly grounded in the horror subgenre, be they slashers or werewolf/vampire films, have the disadvantage of a longstanding extant mythology; their ability to shock or otherwise engage an audience already familiar with their tenets is severely hamstrung. Ultimately, as ever, success or failure falls to the script/director’s ability to toy with these archetypes. The results in this vein for werewolf films have been particularly hit-or-miss, ending up with great sleeper-hits like Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers or the under-budgeted Canadian Ginger Snaps and, on the other hand, dreadful abominations like this year’s Blood & Chocolate or Christina Ricci’s bat-panda creature from the risible Cursed.

The latest offering, Skinwalkers, can’t find anything new to add to the mix, so, like the aforementioned B&C and that Underworld series, it tries its hand at high fantasy — having werewolves exist as secret cabals with their own internal conflicts. Director James Isaac (Jason X) chucks us unbidden into a cliché-ridden werewolf war that’s so rife with genre chestnuts and bad acting that any attempt to engage the audience will be met alternatively with derision and laughter.

The good wolfies, lead by Jonas (Elias Koteas), are attempting to protect 12-year-old Timothy (Matthew Knight), who’s apparently the werewolf Jesus or something; someone somewhere at some point in time prophesied for some reason that this kid’s ascendance at age 13 would end the curse of werewolfism … or something. Nobody’s really sure, but the bad wolfies, led by a villain with a laughably evil name, Varek (Jason Behr), are out to kill the lil’ savior. It turns out that Varek’s gang — a pack of Lorenzo Lamas wannabes who ride Harleys and sling shotguns — rather like turning into werewolves and gobbling up innocents. Either way, the motivations of either group are facile and unengaging, neither bolstered by the script or the B-listers who occupy it. The biggest problem by far is Behr, who viewers may remember starred in that regrettable “Roswell” show as the most boring alien since Ray Walston (and at least he was funny). Behr, an utterly languid actor, substitutes his newfound musculature for presence and his inability to speak above a mumble as menace; a villain like this needs actual charisma.

Skinwalkers’ plot moves like a train, not with speed or momentum, but a ridiculous, arc-less linearity. Good werewolves flee from bad werewolves, bad werewolves catch up, shootout ensues, good werewolves flee again, rinse, repeat; the story has no sense of tension, werewolf apocalypse be damned, and is only peppered once or twice by a “revelation” you can see coming a mile away. Throw into the mix a continuity-punting “About, face!” climax and an epilogue that begs the sequel treatment and, well, “woof” is the right word. Skinwalkers has nothing new to add to the werewolf canon — these films are meant to be horrifying through and through, with lycanthropy as its disturbing, grotesque conceit. Skinwalkers, with its toned-down gore, bad acting, and tin-eared action sensibilities, is nothing of the sort.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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