Although "found footage" horror movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity play up the reality of their storylines, Skinwalker Ranch, unlike most of its ilk, actually has some factual basis. That is to say, the events in the movie are based on events that are purported to have happened in real life, in much the same way that The Amityville Horror was based on debatably real occurrences.
In November 2010, eight-year-old Cody disappears in a flash of light from his home on a Utah ranch. The following August, a team of paranormal investigators from Modern Defense Enterprises (MDE) arrives at the ranch to look into reports of unusual activity that culminated in the boy's disappearance. Cody's father, Hoyt, lets the team stay in his house and wire his property with surveillance equipment, which soon detects everything from otherworldly lights and sounds to cattle mutilations, mysterious vehicles and shadowy figures. Over the next couple of weeks, the paranormal events increase in frequency and intensity as the researchers must decide whether uncovering the truth is worth risking their lives.
The End Result
Skinwalker Ranch is a textbook case of style over substance. Given the modest budget typically associated with found footage fare, it features remarkable special effects -- seamless CGI that rivals similar major studio productions -- but little of substance to anchor them. Its look is actually almost too polished -- from the video quality to the camera movements and the editing -- to truly be "raw" footage, undermining attempts to draw viewers in with a sense of realism.
The script is much more problematic, however. It falls into a trap that trips up many "based on a (supposedly) true story" films: trying too hard to squeeze in every real-life detail. The result is a disjointed, convoluted story that might technically touch upon the full range of paranormal incidents encountered by the actual people on the ranch, but at the cost of sacrificing coherence and a sense of narrative purpose.
Most people don't know that the true story involved tales of UFOs, cattle mutilations, large unidentified animals and more, so the fact that there are so many disparate elements in the movie -- aliens, monsters, ghosts, etc. -- makes it feel like an overstuffed mess. It's like the filmmakers threw every supernatural horror movie trope against the wall to see what would stick, and unfortunately for us, everything did. Even worse, none of the plot points seem to get resolved, leaving us even more confused than when the movie began.
Interesting characters might have helped offset the story issues, but the dull members of the research team have little backstory and even less personality to discern one from another. The solid cast and dazzling special effects keep us watching, but on the whole, Skinwalker Ranch feels like an excuse for a series of well-executed CGI effects to pad someone's reel.
- Acting: C+ (Good, professional performances, although perhaps a bit too polished.)
- Direction: C (Attractive but, like the acting, too polished; fails to generate scares.)
- Script: F (Confusing story with disjointed elements and a mystery that becomes increasingly frustrating.)
- Gore/Effects: B- (Little gore; excellent CGI effects.)
- Overall: C- (An attractive film with dazzling effects and little else.)
Skingwalker Ranch is directed by Devin McGinn and is rated R by the MPAA for language and some violence. Release date: October 30, 2013 (in theaters and on demand).