Johnny Depp

A surprisingly tepid thriller about internecine clashes between lycanthrope clans, "Skinwalkers" plays more like '70s drive-in fare than a monster mash of recent vintage.

A surprisingly tepid thriller about internecine clashes between lycanthrope clans, “Skinwalkers” plays more like ’70s drive-in fare than a monster mash of recent vintage. Reportedly stripped of grisly excess to have its original R rating reduced to a less restrictive PG-13, pic likely will disappoint genre fans accustomed to more explicit scary stuff. But even fleeting theatrical exposure could whet the target audience’s appetite for eventual release of an unrated version on DVD.

Plot is a kinda-sorta coming-of-age story, focused on a 12-year-old boy who’s the son of a guy who moonlighted as a werewolf and a woman was unaware of her husband’s lupine tendencies. Because of his mixed bloodlines, young Timothy (Matthew Knight) is poised to fulfill an ancient prophecy by somehow providing a cure for lycanthropy once he turns 13.

Trouble is, some chopper-riding “skinwalkers” (Navajo idiom for “shape-shifter,” here used to designate wolf-men and wolf-women) don’t want this miracle to occur, because they view their ability to get beastly as a gift, not a curse.

For years, Timothy has resided peacefully with widowed mom Rachel (Rhona Mitra) in Huguenot, a secluded small town where, apparently, each of their friends and neighbors — including Jonas (Elias Koteas), Rachel’s brother-in-law — is a reluctant lycanthrope. The citizens have devoted themselves to protecting Timothy and Rachel, even while keeping mother and son in the dark about Timothy’s destiny and never revealing their shape-shifting ways.

But the beans are spilled, along with several gallons of blood, when a pack of werewolves on wheels, led by the hunky Varek (Jason Behr), descends upon the community. Very little else in “Skinwalkers” is intentionally funny, but there’s something borderline hilarious about the ensuing shootout between the gun-toting outsiders and the seemingly ordinary but heavily armed townspeople. Try to imagine the good folks of Mayberry packing heat and returning fire, and you’ll have some idea how truly bizarre this street scene appears.

Working from a script by James DeMonaco, James Roday and Todd Harthan, helmer Jim Isaac (“Jason X”) keeps the pace reasonably brisk without displaying conspicuous flair for action set pieces. (Even the shootout in Huguenot, while amusing, isn’t viscerally exciting.) There’s a distinctly retro touch to the creature effects by the estimable Stan Winston (the skinwalkers look more like Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot than any CGI-enhanced loup-garou in post-“Howling” horror pics), but the climactic werewolf-on-werewolf smackdown is something of a letdown. Other tech credits are unspectacular.

Koteas lays unchallenged claim to top acting honors here with a persuasive and compelling performance that sustains interest between armed confrontations and werewolf rumbles. It’s not just good work by genre standards; it’s good work, period.

“Skinwalkers” — which, it should be noted, carries a 2006 copyright date — is littered with telltale signs of post-production tinkering. (The closing credits actually refer to a “reshoot crew.”) Still, it’s hard to tell whether some gaps in logic and/or continuity are entirely the result of after-the-fact alterations.

Skinwalkers

Canada-Germany- U.S.

Production

A Lionsgate release (in North America) of a Lionsgate, After Dark Films (U.S.) presentation, in association with Constantin Film (Germany)/Stan Winston Prods. (U.S.), of a Skinwalkers DCP (Canada) production, in association with Red Moon Films (Canada). Produced by Don Carmody, Dennis Berardi. Executive producers, Robert Kulzer, Brian Gilbert. Directed by James Isaac. Screenplay, James DeMonaco, James Roday, Todd Harthan.

Crew

Camera (color), Adam Kane, David A. Armstrong; editor, Allan Lee; music, Andrew Lockington; production designer, David Hackl; costume designer, Antoinette Messam; sound (Dolby Digital), David Lee; creature effects, Stan Winston; assistant director, Pierre Henry; casting, Deirdre Brown. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Aug. 10, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Varek - Jason Behr Jonas - Elias Koteas Rachel - Rhona Mitra Zo - Kim Coates Sonja - Natassia Malthe Timothy - Matthew Knight Katherine - Sarah Carter Doak - Lyriq Bent Will - Tom Jackson Grenier - Rogue Johnston Adam - Shawn Roberts Nana - Barbara Gordon

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