Saturday, May 03, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian: "Master of the Stolen Sunsword" (October 17, 1981)

In “Master of the Stolen Sunsword,” Thundarr and his friends Ariel and Ookla endure a “mega storm” of red-hued lightning and rain in the hills of Hollywood.

In short order, the trio is attacked by wizards and their sky dragon. Thundarr’s sun-sword is damaged in the battle, and requires re-charging.  The group heads to the one of the “poorest villages in the world” to accomplish that task: Beverly Hills.

Unfortunately, a deadly wizard, Yando, gains possession of the sword, and plans to make his own weapon, one charged with “negative lightning.”

As I’ve written before in these brief reviews of Thundarr The Barbarian, for me the greatest joy of this animated Saturday morning series remains its visualizations of a post-apocalyptic world. 

Because the series is animated, the writers and artists had great freedom to visualize amazing ruins and other imaginative post-apocalyptic landscapes.  This is a refreshing quality that live-action series, like Ark II (1976), simply couldn’t afford, as reader SGB has pointed out.  That series features endless desert vistas, but very few ruins or relics of the “old” world.

In “Master of the Stolen Sunsword,” the setting is the Hollywood Hills, and then downtown Beverly Hills.  At one point, we see the evil Wizard’s “Magical Palace,” which seems to be a stand-in for Disney Land.  

And finally, the Griffith Observatory also plays prominently in the action.  In particular, the structure has lava pools roiling beneath it, and it is only there that the sun-sword can be re-charged.

Although it is very much under the surface of the action, “Master of the Sunsword” makes some nice jokes at the expense of the entertainment industry. 

In the land of illusion, for instance, the evil wizard isn’t a wizard at all…just the village scholar pretending, or “acting” as a sorcerer.

And it is ironic, of course, that the wealthy Beverly Hills has been transformed into the third-world of the post-apocalyptic age. It is not only poor, but one of the poorest places on the planet.  How the mighty have fallen…

Given these touches, this episode of Thundarr the Barbarian is very amusing, even if the narrative is pretty much the same old stuff featured every week.

Next week: “Stalker from the Stars.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "The Tickler"

In “The Tickler,” Walt (Fred Grandy) discovers counterfeit money at the Wax Museum and with the help of the crime computer determines that it is being circulated by a dreaded old enemy: The Tickler (Ivor Francis). 

The Tickler is known as “the man who cannot laugh” and he dresses as a clown so as to pull pranks on unsuspecting people, and, hopefully make himself laugh in the process.

Drac, Frank’N’Stein and The Wolf Man head to Laugh Land -- a weird funhouse -- to apprehend The Tickler, but he is ready for them.  The Tickler captures all three of the monsters with the help of his minions, Twitter and Snicker, and informs them that he wants revenge on Walt and the Squad for sending him to prison.

Soon Walt heads to Laugh Land as well. But will he show up too late to save the monsters from The Tickler’s nefarious feather wheel and giggle goo?

This week’s episode of The Monster Squad (1976), “The Tickler” features Ivor Francis as a villain who tries very hard not to be The Joker.  Although he is also a clown, The Tickler makes a big deal of not laughing about things.  I suppose that’s the primary differentiation between villains.

Because in every other way, this episode of The Monster Squad -- like each one made so far -- rigorously apes the Batman TV formula. 

The Wax Museum basement doubles as the Bat Cave, the crime computer for the Bat Computer, and the Tickler for the Joker.  The colorful villain of the week attempts to confound the heroes with a terrible machine, and in this case, it’s the feather wheel.  But if you watched Batman, you know that each cliffhanger ending featured some terrible trap for the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder.

What is a little different about this episode of the series is that Walt actually gets out of the dungeon and is able to help out the monsters on their case.  He takes his criminology book into the field with him, a jokey but amusing touch, and it turns out that the book is hiding a weapon, one with which he can escape from his cell and free his friends.

Fans of Star Trek (1966 – 1969) will note that the gun is a toy phaser. The prop department on this series was really raiding Star Trek merchandise on a regular basis.

I liked “The Tickler” a bit more than the previous entry, “Mr. Mephisto,” in part because -- despite the derivative nature of his character -- Ivor Francis provides the series its best villain so far.

There’s something very unsettling about a lugubrious clown, and Francis nicely showcases a sense of menace in the role. He seems like the most dangerous foe The Monster Squad has yet encountered. Perhaps his performance works well because, as a humorless clown, he isn’t constantly reaching for silly jokes.

Next week: "The Ringmaster"

Saturday Morning: 1976

Friday, May 02, 2014

At Anorak: Five Sci-Fi Series that FOX TV Axed Before Their Time

My latest contribution to Anorak gazes at promising science fiction TV series that were scuttled by FOX TV in their first seasons when, clearly, patience would have been a preferable approach.

Here's a snippet:

Just this week, Fox Television announced the cancellation of the high-profile series Almost Human (2013 – 2014), a science fiction endeavor starring Karl Urban and Michael Ealy, and executive-produced by J.J. Abrams.

Fans of the short-lived series remain heartbroken that Fox showed so little faith in the promising venture.

But perhaps the saddest fact here is that the early axing of Almost Human conforms to Fox’s long-time pattern of murdering genre TV programs while they are still in the cradle. 

Going back nearly thirty years, it’s actually the same story, over and over again...

Cult-Movie Review: The Dark Crystal (1982)

"Another World. Another Time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good...until the Crystal cracked. A single piece was lost, a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics..."

-          Voice-over narration from The Dark Crystal (1982)

Thus begins The Dark Crystal, the remarkable Jim Henson fantasy released theatrically in December of 1982. Simply stated, The Dark Crystal is a production of vibrant color, epic scope, and fascinating creations the likes of which the movies had never before witnessed...not in over a hundred years of cinematic history. I count The Dark Crystal as one of the most dazzling films ever made in terms of visuals..

But what remains so amazing about The Dark Crystal thirty-two years later is that there's nary a human being in sight as reference or grounding point for this adventure.  Rather, the Henson film transports us to an absolutely alien world, complete unto itself.  This mesmerizing and daring vision arrives under the creative auspices of conceptual designer Brian Froud, production designer Harry Lange, scenarist David Odell, and co-directors Frank Oz and Henson.  Each deserves kudos for going where no film production had gone before.

While the film’s narrative is abundantly familiar -- a textbook resurrection of the Campbell Monomyth, right down to the presence of a “Chosen One” (Jen the Gelfling) selected to undertake a dangerous quest -- The Dark Crystal nonetheless thrives because it transports us to a planet of living forests alongside remarkable beasts and beings such as the Land Striders, the Garthim, Podlings, Crystal Bats, Gelflings, Mystics and, last but not least, the remarkable and disgusting Skeksis.  It is a cinematic world of richness, depth, and much so that the precise details of the admittedly familiar narrative matter little.

Despite The Dark Crystal’s visual lushness, critics were generally unkind regarding the film.  Vincent Canby concluded that the film was without charm as well as interest.”  Meanwhile, a reviewer at the Reno Gazette-Journal, described The Dark Crystal as an “overblown puppet show” while critic Ken Hanke called it “Tolkien with puppets.”

What seems genuinely overlooked in terms of the mainstream response to the film is The Dark Crystal’s unique leitmotif: a kind of yin-and-yang approach to life.  

Specifically, the planet featured in the film is “fractured” into two opposing, extreme camps: Mystics and Skeksis.  Each camp relies heavily on thousand-year old rituals, but finds "no satisfaction" in the rote repetition of them.  

And that’s because each side is incomplete, flawed, and even bored.  The Skeksis are rather overtly flawed of course, giant vulture-like creatures interested only in avarice and their own unhealthy appetites.  But the slow and deliberate Mystics are flawed as well -- too slow and contemplative to really live life to the fullest -- and only the “Great Conjunction” can heal the planet and bring the two races together.

In an increasingly postmodern world, it’s easy to gaze at this “fracturing” of wholeness in The Dark Crystal as the filmmakers' comment on the partisan nature of life, where objective reality and scientific fact are themselves subordinate to ideological belief.  

Virtually alone among movie fantasies, The Dark Crystal concerns healing and completeness, and the idea that to be "whole," we must join with and "absorb" the “darker” part of ourselves...even if we don’t want to.  

For as bad as the Skeksis surely are, their percentage of the equation cannot be absent in the totality of identity.  What we see embodied in the film, then, is a relatively realistic and integrated view about mankind.  Like these alien creatures, we are not without a dark side, and the dark side even has a place in our gestalt, but we must decide how to harness it appropriately.

I mentioned postmodernism above, and that's because, in some fashion, The Dark Crystal appears to subtly comment on that movement in the arts.  

In particular, theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested that society has become so reliant on models and maps that it has lost contact with the real world that preceded those models and maps.  What we see in The Dark Crystal is actually a critique of the models and maps of our lives, here showcased in the religious rituals of the Mystics and the court rituals of the Skeksis.  

These models and maps no longer provide "satisfaction" for practitioners and that is because they are no longer connected to present-day reality.  If The Dark Crystal concerns "wholeness," it is also about connection; the interconnection of man and his environment.    

Given this idea, the re-assertion of the old Monomyth story line plays like a restoration of the "modern" and objective in an increasingly "postmodern" and relativistic world.  Indeed, the straight-forward, unencumbered, distinctively anti-"meta" narrative in The Dark Crystal is like some delicious antidote to PoMo theory.

If postmodernism champions the idea that ethics and truth are subjective, The Dark Crystal rejects that notion, and finds comfort -- and even the promise of paradise -- in the idea that universal truths about our connection to one another can save the day, and the planet.  The Skeksis and Mystics each dwell in their little, separate, inward-looking worlds, replete with rituals that reinforce their incomplete visions of reality.  In completing his quest and making the dark crystal whole again, Jen actually remakes the world as it is meant to be: a thing of universal beauty.

Hold her to you, for she is part of you, as we all are part of each other.

The Dark Crystal opens as the next "Great Conjunction" of three stars draws near. The Mystics and the Skeksis -- two sides of the same coin but splintered into two "opposite" race -- await this cosmic coming together with vastly different emotions. The Skeksis fear it, for prophecy indicates that a Gelfling will heal the schism caused by the shattering of the Crystal, thus ending the Skeksis reign. In fact, the Skeksis are so afraid of the prophecy that they murdered all the Gelflings to prevent a "Chosen One" from aborting their rule.

On the other hand, the gentle Mystics look forward to their eventual re-unification, and know that if the Gelfling fails now, evil will reign in the land for another thousand eternity of darkness.

On the day that the elderly Skeksis Emperor and his opposite number among the Mystics finally dies, young Jen, a Gelfling, is informed of his role in the scheme of things by his dying master. He sets off on a dangerous quest to find the shard, the missing piece of the Crystal that can heal the land.

His first stop takes him to Aughra's home in the mountains, where he locates the shard and escapes from the grasp of the skittering, clicking, hard-shelled foot-soldiers of the Skeksis, the Garthim

Later, Jen meets the only other surviving Gelfing, a female named Kira and her pet, Fizzgigg. She joins his quest, and together they make for the Skeksis castle, where the Dark Crystal awaits.

But treachery is just around the corner as an outcast Skeksis, the Chamberlain plots for a triumphant return to the new Emperor's Court...

“What was sundered and undone shall be whole - the two made one.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Dark Crystal is that every one of the film’s many creations had to actually exist to be filmed. 

By that, I mean the creatures weren't generated by a few deft keystrokes on a computer and then added to a live-action sequence later on.  

Instead, these colorful, breathing, wondrous things -- the denizens of this unique world --- had to be designed, built, wrangled and performed. They had to be a real physical presence on the sets. They had to be managed for the camera.  The filmmakers had to contend with putting these creatures out on location in some instances, in the rain and elements.  

By and large, modern digital effects do away with such challenges, and with a lot of traditional movie magic and artistry too.  

When you pause to think about the making of this film, you can truly detect what a labor of love The Dark Crystal must have been.  There's ample reward for such labor too.  Whereas digital monsters often appear to (unintentionally) defy gravity, or seem somehow separate from their environs, the wondrous creatures of The Dark Crystal actually appear to inhabit their world, to be affected by gravity, sunlight, water and the elements.  

This is a crucial thing if the movie is about a being's connection to nature.  He must exist side-by-side with nature, right?  The Dark Crystal doesn't skimp on making this happen.

First and foremost, then, The Dark Crystal must be acknowledged as a state-of-the-art fantasy film, one wherein the visuals are truly breathtaking.  I'm horrified and embarrassed for my profession that so many critics sought to diminish this ambitious film by writing off the film's creations as mere puppets, or by invoking the specter of Miss Piggy in their reviews.  Talk about not meeting a film half-way, or failing to acknowledge the artistry put up on screen...

Even beyond the special effects, The Dark Crystal contextualizes its hero's journey story in unique fashion, as I've written above. The creators of the film make a great effort -- both in word and imagery -- to countenance the theme of a world split down the middle, and suffering for that horrible disunion.   Sometimes, our world truly feels that way too.

In terms of visualization, we see this theme of schism and connection played repeatedly. For when a Skeksis dies (like the Emperor), the same thing happens to his opposite number among the gentle Mystics. A bloody hand on a Skeksis results in a wound on the hand of a Mystic, and so on. 

This is a literalization of the notion that united we stand, divided we fall. And also that an action against an enemy may actually rebound and hurt an ally. In the United States today, we often hear how our citizens are "more divided" than ever; how the Red State vs. Blue State conflict is the prevailing dynamic. 

Yet what The Dark Crystal skillfully makes clear is that all races on this faraway planet (like all Americans, or all human beings for that matter...) actually share the same fate. As the "angel"-like creature at the film's climax (the reunification of the Skeksis/Mystics) informs Jen, we are all a part of each other.  For better (like the Mystics?) or worse (like the Skeksis).

Delightfully, this unique theme is not treated in a heavy-handed fashion, and instead the filmmakers primarily make their point visually. 

Again, production design is critically important in any reading of this film. The Mystics - gentle, wise creatures - are adorned in loose fitting robes, and seen in sandy earth tones. Their realm is of the "earth," an abode cut out of stone and clay. They seem to have few possessions and are hence not material creatures. They represent conventional "good" traits like humility, modesty, love of nature and environment.  They are slow, deliberate and poised, but also old and somehow drained, exhausted.

In contrast, the Skeksis represent the dark side of humanity. Greed, avarice, malice. Their territory looks like a strip-mined wasteland, save for the castle. The Skeksis dress in elaborate, ostentatious robes of ornate design and bold color (crimson, gold, purple, and orange) and surround themselves with material wealth: giant hanging tapestries, high-backed banquet chairs, wide cushioned beds, and so forth. These material possessions are so important to the Skeksis that the creatures literally appear hunched over by the weight of their cloaks and the elaborate, bony gear they wear over their spines.

Above all else, these creatures -- who resemble nothing so much as giant buzzards -- value material possessions. That's why it is the ultimate punishment in this society to be stripped of robes, as the Chamberlain is stripped after his failed bid for leadership.  When shorn of his costuming and place in Skeksis society, Chamberlain is revealed to be nothing but a scrawny, bony creation with bad posture. The clothes make the man (or monster).

The  Mystics and Skeksis are mirror images of one another, and the film showcases brilliantly this idea of reflection.  When the Skeksis Emperor dies...he rots.  When the Mystic leader dies, he transcends.  Where the Skeksis Emperor clings to life, the Mystic...lets go.  Where the surviving Skeksis are all about taking away power from the dying Emperor (thinking of themselves), the Mystics think about honoring he who has passed away.  And yet, again, remember the yin-and-yang.  Both "natures" are essential for wholeness, according to the film.  We need our inner Skeksis as much as our inner Mystic, I suppose you might say.  The Skeksis, for instance, seem to understand the imperative of self-preservation, at least.

One could also make the argument, I suppose, that The Dark Crystal concerns a class society where the rich (the Skeksis) lord it over the poor (the Podlings, who resemble  nothing so much as Russian peasants...), literally draining their vital life energies to maintain their own existence.  If you interpret the film in this fashion, it seems even more relevant and interesting in today's political environment. The Skeksis are vulture capitalists who are, actually, vultures.

But thematic insights aside, The Dark Crystal makes full, dynamic use of the rectangular movie frame, and in many gorgeous compositions the camera stands far enough back for the audience to gain a real sense of scale. The view of the Mystics on the march to the Castle -- a sun rise behind them -- is merely one example of the film's fully enunciated ability to capture and evoke a genuine sense of (alien)  place. 

Accordingly, The Dark Crystal is a movie that lives up to the often-utilized adjective, "wondrous." . Aughra's mountaintop residence, replete with a gigantic, metallic, spinning machine of a hundred parts, is a gorgeous bit of arcane design. The notorious banquet scene involving the Skekses is a truly disgusting set-piece, revealing the appetite of these creatures (and setting the stage, a year later, for Jabba the Hutt's appetites, one might guess...). And Kira's beautiful, overgrown forest is a splendid, lively creation...a place of overflowing life, where the very shrubbery itself seems to breathe.

Ultimately, The Dark Crystal succeeds beyond expectations because even in the midst of this utterly alien, utterly convincing landscape, the story speaks to a crucial aspect of human nature. 

Aren't we all split, in some senses, right down the middle, just like the Skeksis and the Mystics? Hoping for the best, yet often clinging to the worst angels of our nature? 

This is a movie that "crystallizes" that dichotomy in an artistic fashion, and the result is a rare fantasy film of beauty, vision and epic scope.  I fully realize that many fans love the Lord of the Rings films with tremendous ardor, but I'll take The Dark Crystal over that trilogy any day.  

For one thing, The Dark Crystal is less noisy (and very admirably concise) in comparison.  For another, The Dark Crystal features a great villain in the Skeksis (as opposed to an amorphous, floating eyeball..).  And finally, The Dark Crystal miraculously makes us examine human nature when there is not even a human being to grace the screen.

They don't make 'em like The Dark Crystal anymore, especially in the CGI age.  

But perhaps they should.

Movie Trailer: The Dark Crystal (1982)

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock Promos and Trailers

At Anorak: The Five Most Underrated John Carpenter Movies

My latest article, now posted at Anorak, tallies up the five most under-appreciated John Carpenter movies.

As all readers here know, I have long been an admirer of Carpenter's output, and consider him a truly great genre director.  I believe his films are superbly-crafted, and thus stand the test of time.

JOHN Carpenter’s film career has had its critical ups and downs, but time – the final arbiter of success, perhaps – has been almost universally kind to the vast majority of his cinematic work.
Reviled upon release in the summer of Spielberg’s E.T., John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is now revered as a horror classic and a work of art superior to the Howard Hawks film of 1951.
Similarly, Carpenter’s anti-yuppie battle cry, They Live (1988) has been re-evaluated as an ahead-of-its time masterpiece about the imminent death of the middle class in America, and “vulture capitalists” picking at its bones.
Even In the Mouth of Madness (1994), dismissed on original release as lesser-Carpenter, is widely considered now to be the finest interpretation of the Lovecraft aesthetic yet committed to film.
Why do Carpenter’s films age so well, and thus almost universally merit serious re-examination?
In part this pattern repeats because his neo-classical visualizations — his understanding of where to place the camera for maximum visceral and artistic impact — compares so favorably to the modern green-screen “fix-it-in-post” approach to modern movie-making.
And in part this occurs because Carpenter’s work is admirably consistent. His canon features what might be readily termed an umbrella of unity.  In particular, the director almost universally contextualizes his films as Westerns…only as westerns set in unusual settings such as Mars, or at the (supernatural) town of Hobb’s End.
The following five films — including Carpenter’s two most recent works — as yet await the full light of critical study and appreciation, but nonetheless deserve to be spotlighted.  They are, as of right now, Carpenter’s most underrated works of art.

Cult-Movie Review: Skinwalker Ranch (2013)

With Devil’s Pass (2013) and Skinwalker Ranch (2013), the found-footage horror movie format is moving decisively into the realm of paranormal conspiracy theories. 

This development is all the better for the unexpectedly brilliant Devil’s Pass, which remains one of the most imaginative and ingenious examples of the genre, at least of late.

By contrast, Skinwalker Ranch isn’t quite in the same league.

The film, though well-made and ambitious, never manages to cohere.

In short, Skinwalker Ranch plays like a found-footage version of the mostly-forgotten low-budget horror/sci –fi movie The Day Time Ended (1979), which concerned an isolated family living in a desert out west, faced with all manners of apparitions, creatures and aliens as the walls between time-periods seemed to collapse around them.

In under ninety minutes, Skinwalker Ranch likewise accommodates the appearance of giant wolves, foxfire, UFOs, apparitions, cattle-mutilation, Indian cave drawings, psychic children, alien greys, and other beasts to boot, and seems to concern a similar phenomenon. 

In short, the walls of reality appear to be breaking down around the expansive ranch, thus allowing for a smorgasbord of diverse and loosely-related terrors to threaten the film’s protagonists.

The problem is that, unlike the internally-consistent Devil’s Pass, no cogent “unified theory” is ever presented in Skinwalker Ranch. Therefore, after a while, the viewer begins to feel that anything can happen at any time, with no rhyme or reason. 

Similarly, the film’s characters drop the ball over and over again, and don’t make effective (or even ineffective…) use of the elaborate camera set-ups they have previously described in detail.

Why bother to explain or show to audiences where every last camera is placed on the ranch only to have the heroes fail to avail themselves of the (crucial) footage recorded by them? It makes no sense, either for the characters, or for the film.

Obviously, found-footage and alien-based movies are right up my alley, so I still had a good time with Skinwalker Ranch, even though the film could have been far more consistent and intelligent in its creative approach. 

At the very least, Skinwalker Ranch features some effective jump scares. Furthermore, one sequence involving an “event” on the ranch in the 1960s – though largely unrelated to the rest of the movie -- is positively riveting.

“Whatever this thing is, I believe it is still here…and it’s really smart.”

On the day of his birthday, young Cody (Nash Lucas) disappears in a flash of blue light on the premises of the Skinwalker Ranch, his (recently purchased…) family home. 

Cody’s distraught mother ends up in a mental institution, while his father, Hoyt (John Gries) seeks help and tries to prove that he did not harm his beloved child.

A team from MDE (Modern Defense Experts) heads to the ranch to explore the paranormal event, and if possible, clear Hoyt of any wrongdoing. 

Leading the team is field scientist Sam Green (Steve Berg). 

Also present are a field veterinarian named Lisa (Erin Cahill), a freelance camera-man, Britton (Michael Black), an impartial journalist, Cameron Murphy (Devin McGinn), and Ray (Kyle Davis) a security man.

Several Cameras are soon set up on the Skinwalker Ranch premises in an attempt to document anything out of the ordinary.

On the team’s very first night, strange events begin to occur. 

A weird, deafening noise and white light engulfs the ranch house. When the team observes the exterior of the home, they find that bats have crashed into the roof by the dozens.

When footage of the kitchen is reviewed some nights later, it is also determined that Cody -- apparently alive and well -- seems to run through the room at exactly 11:11 pm every night. 

The team attempts to catch him at 11:11 after becoming aware of this phenomenon, but the apparition of Cody escapes, and leads the group into a sealed barn.

Inside the barn is an MDE box labeled “FOR EMERGENCY ONLY” and an old videotape of a former expedition to the ranch in the sixties. 

A review of the tape’s footage reveals MDE men and women in haz-mat suits conducting an experiment on a girl with fearsome psychic powers named Rebecca (Taylor Bateman).

While Sam becomes ever more obsessed with discovering the ranch’s myriad secrets, the others grow terrified as the paranormal events escalate…

“There is a darkness in the soil…You need to get the fuck out of here.”

Skinwalker Ranch bases its story of paranormal activity on the real-life Sherman Ranch, a tract of land near Ballard, Utah.

Like the famous Amityville Horror story, the ranch was at first associated with a family that had purchased it…and soon reported strange and inexplicable events occurring there.

The 2013 film uses the stories -- going back to 1974 -- of cattle mutilations and other phenomena to spin its web of terror.  Though steeped in conspiracy theories about the paranormal rather than supernatural lore, the film seems to adopt the Amityville Horror template in more way than one. 

An Indian man (Michael Horse) attempts to bless the MDE team and the ranch’s land…and immediately seems to suffer a coronary event while doing so, very much like the priest (Rod Steiger) who blessed the Long Island house in the 1979 film.

So, perhaps in more ways than one, Skinwalker Ranch is another “haunting” horror movie though the haunting, in this case, seems to be done by Greys and their UFOs and not demonic powers. 

Skinwalker Ranch reaches its zenith of effectiveness when it examines the befuddled and confused character of Hoyt (Gries), the rancher who has lost his son, and, in fact, his whole family.  Authentic tension builds as Hoyt and the others attempt to catch his son who -- Flying Dutchman-like -- appears in the farm house’s kitchen every night at 11:11 pm.

We feel for Hoyt because he is grappling with his feelings of guilt and separation, and is desperate to know that, somehow, that his son is all right. The movie builds a sense of anticipation and tension as 11:11 pm nears, and we wonder what we are going to see, and what the cameras will capture.

Unfortunately, the re-appearing Cody specter also proves to be the film’s biggest albatross. 

The MDE team establishes that the boy runs through the kitchen every night, on the same trajectory, in the same way, almost like a recording.  The team is unable to catch him on the first night they become aware of his presence. They run after him, but he disappears.

You would think, then, that the team would try again to apprehend Cody the following night.  And the following night. 

And the night after that.

Unbelievably, the team does no such thing.

After one attempt to catch Cody is depicted, we never see another attempt.  In fact, the team never mentions Cody’s late night run through the kitchen again, and no one even checks the kitchen feed to see if he re-appears. 

This makes no sense, even in terms of character, because certainly Hoyt’s first priority would be the recovery of his son.  Don’t you think he’d be camped out in that kitchen every damn night?

It is pure sloppiness not to feature even a basic explanation for the team’s failure to try to catch Cody a second time.  A quick line of dialogue could have established that the sightings have stopped, or that the cameras aren’t picking up Cody anymore.  Instead, the plot thread is just left hanging, and the audience is left guessing.

Similarly, on the night that the bats hit the roof, the MDE team never goes back to review its footage and see the rodents actually striking the house “live.”  This oversight is despite the fact that we get a laborious set-up of camera locations in the film’s first act.

Ask yourself: if there were a deafening noise, a blinding light, and then a swarm of bats hitting a house, and you had footage of this phenomenon…wouldn’t you want to review it for yourself, even though you have a pretty good idea, based on the empirical evidence, what happened?

I know I would want to see what the cameras recorded, and how, precisely, it all went down.

Found-footage films, by nature, are all about expressing and recording a compelling and believable (though artificial…) sense of reality.

When characters fail to act in a fashion consistent with expectations and our sense of reality, it’s a problem.  A team of experts operating a dozen cameras would certainly seek to review their footage, to better understand their situation, and it is a strike against the film’s quality that this doesn’t seem to occur on a regular basis.

Skinwalker Ranch also suffers because the scope of the “evil” phenomenon at the ranch is simply too broad.

The dark power makes Ray (Kyle Davis), the security guy, kill himself.  

It may or may not be responsible for Sam’s descent into obsessive madness. 

The phenomenon can sweep people off the ground and hurl them hundreds of feet, and yet, by the same token, the Grey creatures feel compelled to actually appear now and then, and scare the team. 

There’s just no sense of reality or consistency to the attacks here, and so what seems required, again, is that elusive “unified theory:” something on which all the paranormal attacks and phenomenon can legitimately hang. 

It’s especially difficult to parse Rebecca’s subplot in terms of the rest of the film.  There was an evil, psychic girl on the ranch in the 1960s?  What does that fact have to do with greys, cattle mutilations, giant wolves or the other sightings?

Your guess is as good as mine.

But, ironically, the footage in Rebecca’s sequence is some of the best in the film. It looks to be legitimately from the 1960s, and the sequence is terrifying and odd.

Once more, I should probably state that I love ambiguity in horror films… but that I appreciate consistency just as much. 

Basically, Skinwalker Ranch throws everything but the kitchen-sink at the audience, and thus offers up no consistent theory about what it all means, or why it is happening. We ping pong from giant prehistoric wolves impervious to bullets to a girl who acts like Samarra in The Ring (2002), to a climactic UFO sighting.  It’s all intriguing, to be certain, but none of it actually makes sense in terms of a consistent narrative.

I recently reviewed a film called Resolution (2012), which also concerned “haunted” land out west, Indian cave drawings, and the possible presence of aliens or Old Gods. 

Yet that film had a rich sub-text about storytelling and writing, and a high degree of consistency involving the peculiar phenomenon. 

Skinwalker Ranch boasts a lot of shocks and bumps, but Resolution is a smarter and better film because the filmmakers seem to actually have an artistic perspective on what is happening to the film’s lead characters.  The same is patently not true here.

By the time it ends, Skinwalker Ranch wears out its welcome, and becomes a bit exasperating because it refuses so steadfastly to explain many significant aspects of its narrative. 

After watching, you won’t feel like yelling at the film to “get the fuck out of” your DVD player, but you may feel, rightly, that Skinwalker Ranch is all horse and no cattle.