From a few filmmakers who saw Paranormal Activity comes Skinwalker Ranch, the latest—and perhaps dreariest—horror film to employ a found-footage conceit. The illusion that Devin McGinn’s film (“Inspired by true events”) is actually recovered video made by paranormal investigators is immediately sabotaged by the fact that the first person seen onscreen is well-known character actor Jon Gries, playing a Utah farmer named Hoyt whose son is mysteriously abducted on his birthday by a hovering light that zaps him to who-knows-where. Gries’ instant recognizability is merely the first of many directorial choices that undercut any vérité pretenses: McGinn’s overly glossy cinematography is defined by jostling handheld pans and zooms that seem far too perfectly arranged—both to capture and obscure the action at hand—to come across as legitimately accidental.
Ironically, that unwanted professionalism is a mark of Skinwalker Ranch’s amateurishness, which extends to performers whose first-person confessional interviews have been scripted for maximum expository purposes, and little else. There isn’t a single authentic-sounding line in Adam Ohler’s script, which concerns a team of government experts led by Sam (Steve Berg), who arrive at Hoyt’s cattle ranch hoping to locate his missing boy and uncover the truth about the area’s paranormal phenomenon. This involves setting up numerous black-and-white security cameras in and around the property to catch glimpses of extraterrestrial invaders, phantoms, or whatever else might be out in the fields shining bright-white lights and making screechy sounds with underlying inaudible-frequency noises that, one techie explains, come either from government technology or whale-like animals.
No whales ever materialize in Skinwalker Ranch, but after much wandering about in the flashlight-illuminated dark, the characters do encounter a gargantuan wolf, which runs off into a cave where the team discovers ancient drawings of spear-wielders worshiping a UFO. This implies that the aliens in question are shape-shifters of some sort, though explanations are of no concern to McGinn, whose film operates via go-with-the-flow plotting in which every weird event seems only loosely related to the previous one. By the time the ghostly apparition of Hoyt’s son is spied running through the kitchen, it’s clear that there’s no lucid mythos guiding these proceedings, just horror clichés smushed together at random.
Those include a grainy 1960s videocassette of otherworldly encounters, and the now hackneyed-to-death moment in which the camera falls to the ground and captures an image of the cameraman lying dead beside it. When the aliens finally stop toying around with their human prey and actually show themselves, they prove so dispiritingly unoriginal in concept and behavior that it renders this fourth-generation E.T. saga redundant. Ultimately, that’s also true of its derivative found-footage gimmick. Why this video material has been edited together so expertly, and also occasionally embellished with an ominous score, is deliberately left to the imagination—or, rather, is further evidence of the slipshod nature of the entire affair, as well as the mounting creative bankruptcy of the subgenre as a whole.