D: Devin McGinn / 86m
Cast: Jon Gries, Kyle Davis, Erin Cahill, Devin McGinn, Steve Berg, Matthew Rocheleau, Michael Horse, Michael Black
A short time after his son disappears inexplicably, Hoyt Miller (Gries) agrees for a team of paranormal researchers to spend time at his ranch in an effort to explain what happened to his son. The team, led by Sam (Berg), include veterinarian Lisa (Cahill), security and surveillance expert Ray (Davis), investigative journalist Cameron (McGinn), cameraman Britton (Black) plus media technician, driver, cook and resident bitch Matt (Rocheleau). Over the course of the next few days, Hoyt and the team experience all manner of weird phenomena, including strange lights, ghostly apparitions and loud, ear-splitting noises. As things get increasingly weirder, Matt leaves after getting injured, and exhorts everyone else to do the same. Nevertheless the rest all stay until events spiral wildly out of control…
Yet another found footage movie – and don’t we need even more of them? – Skinwalker Ranch at least tries to do something different by virtue of its location and the cause of the weird phenomena: this time around it’s (probably) aliens. Taking some of the folklore surrounding UFO sightings and bending it to fit the storyline, the movie begins well enough, with comments from several locals about the boy’s disappearance, and with each character clearly defined and the team’s goal(s) clearly marked out. McGinn invests these early sequences with the intention of making the audience identify to a degree with Hoyt and the team, but as the movie progresses that identification peters out as they all behave either stupidly or strangely, or both.
Skinwalker Ranch fails to address the same conundrum that undermines all found footage movies: when does someone pay heed to the danger around them and drop the ruddy camera? That said, the movie gets extra mileage out of the fixed camera set ups the team employ around the ranch, and the open spaces make for an unexpectedly eerie visual theme. But there’s still too much running with the camera. By now we’re all aware that jostling the camera and/or employing interference is often a way of hiding an effect – here most effectively done in the barn sequence involving Hoyt’s dog – but this knowledge further undermines the effectiveness of the “fright” scenes. Pulling off an apparently in-camera effect is half the fun of watching these movies – the girl being hoisted up in the air by her hair in Paranormal Activity 2 anyone? – but there’s little fun to be had now, there’s no sense of anticipation or dread either here, or anywhere else these days.
The movie takes an unexpected turn into Hound of the Baskervilles territory for a while before returning to its alien abduction theme, and the decision by Matt to leave after being thrown through the air is refreshing, but these aspects aside, there’s nothing really new here, just the setting. A figure still passes by a window in the background but isn’t seen, one of the characters is forced to do something terrible by unseen hands, bright lights flash on and off for no discernible reason, and when the culprit is revealed there’s no element of terror, just a relief that, at last, things must be coming to an end. And even though another side trip into the past where evidence comes to light that the organisation Sam works for – MDE – has been involved in previous strange events in the area, ticks the potential prequel box, this subplot leans more heavily in the direction of demonic possession than alien abduction, and actively lessens the effectiveness of the story as a whole.
Making his feature debut, McGinn copes well enough with the demands of the genre, but proves a better actor than director. Gries is convincing throughout, and the rest of the cast do their best to flesh out characters that are largely stereotypes. The location is the movie’s main strength, and is used tellingly, creating what little credible tension there is. But more annoyingly, you never discover why it’s called Skinwalker ranch.
Rating: 6/10 – not the worst found footage movie, but not the best either, Skinwalker Ranch has some good ideas but they’re too often fumbled in the quest for the next scare; ultimately, a shallow experience and one that doesn’t follow through on its initial set up.