Nothing is so reassuring as to the quality of a film as to rename it before releasing it in a new market in the hopes that any previous negative associations may be expunged from the record; thus it was that Howard the Duck crossed the Atlantic to become a new breed of heroic aquatic bird, that Guinea Pigs became The Facility, and now the latest applicant for the witness protection programme of direct to disc anonymity is Skinwalker Ranch, perhaps rebranded without the knowledge that the name Skinwalkers already carries the taint of vicious reviews dating to a 2006 werewolf film of the same name.

As low budget found footage horror goes, writer Adam Ohler and director Devin McGinn have researched the format and tick the boxes methodically, heralding their masterpiece with title cards explaining the origin of the footage accompanied with suitably doomy foreshadowing (“Journalist Jacob Rundels disappeared inexplicably on January 18, 2013”) before offering a warning that “The following footage may be disturbing to some viewers,” presumably those who have prior experience of competent filmmaking and plotting.

Opening with a recording of a birthday party from November 2011 at which an eight year old boy vanished in a flash of bright light, this is the story of the team of “experts” sent by Modern Defense Enterprises to document and study the occurrences, the film composed entirely of the footage of their investigation and the materials they discovered on site, though with an atmospheric soundtrack kindly supplied by some undisclosed composer who presumably “found” the footage and felt it was lacking in its raw form.

Unfortunately, the term “checklist” has been taken a little too little by the production team. Rather than attempting to develop interesting characters and having them explore the terrain, upon arrival at Skinwalker Ranch the entire cast are required to introduce themselves on camera (“Sam! PHD student!” “Cameron! Journalist!” “Britton! Cameraman!” “Hoyt! Bereaved father!”) before Ray (“Security!”) establishes the setting by demonstrating the exterior cameras (“Frontage! House! Pasture! Barn! Corral! Barn exterior! Barn interior!”) then asks Matt (“Driver!”) to familiarise the audience with the layout of the house (“Living room! Bedroom one! Bedroom two! Living room! Dining room! Kitchen! Bedroom three! Bedroom four! Basement! Butcher room!”), though fortunately the different lenses are not discussed.

The obligatory cryptic mystic comes on the first evening in the form of Ahote (“Token Native American!”), who tells the investigators that “this land is forsaken by my people… there is a darkness in the soil,” and later that night the house is bombarded with bats, their sonar somehow disrupted, though Lisa (“Vet!”) categorically states that there is no infection, her diagnosis solely based on visual inspection of a pile of dead bats.

With the name of the ranch taken from Native American legends of those who change form and with reports of unidentified lights in the sky around the area dating back two centuries, the investigation is broadly into the unexplained, but the film is unable to decide whether it wishes to be supernatural or science fiction, and ultimately fails to make a decision, opting to run through the back catalogue of the greatest hits of The X Files in the hopes that the target audience will be too young to recall that show.

That many of the elements are staged effectively on the minimal budget is irrelevant, as none are connected to each other or any semblance of a plot. Instead, the effect is more akin to switching between various television channels showing a variety of paranormal programming. Thus the second half of the film features livestock mutilation, werewolf tracks, exploration of a cave system revealing prehistoric paintings, werewolf sightings, conspiracy theories, unmarked cars observing from a distance, invisible assailants attacking dogs, additional alien abductions, werewolf attacks, strange lights in the sky heralding a rampaging monster and the arrival of the mothership.

Like a fractal, the discovery of an archive Umatic tape containing footage from the 1960s exhibits the same Ritalin deficient approach to narrative, featuring mystery agents in hazmat suits, a creepy young girl, superpowers/poltergeist activity and indications of what may be possession or an infection by Resident Evil’s T-virus within a matter of minutes, none of which are related back to the framing story other than it gives the cast one more thing to argue about.

Inspired by the alleged unexplained phenomena around Sherman Ranch near Ballard, Utah, the investigations into which prompted noted sceptical thinker James Randi to bestow a Pigasus award in 1997 for “the most useless study of a supernatural, paranormal or occult,” Skinwalker Ranch itself deserves recognition if for no other reason than it’s preposterously slow end credits which require a full ten minutes from 1:10:43 to 1:20:44, consuming 12% of the running time of the film, yet for the first three minutes of that are still the most artistically accomplished and engaging part of the whole film.

Skinwalkers is released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 24th

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