A decade before The Blair Witch Project popularized the found footage genre, a small film called UFO Abduction (1989) presented the alleged home video of a Connecticut family abducted by aliens. Since the concept of found footage at the time wasn’t well known, it blew a lot of minds. Even UFO “experts” were shocked by the video. Of course nowadays found footage is one of the most played out genre styles. It’s devolved into a lazy subgenre that’s used to market films – despite everyone and their grandmothers knowing that they’re bullshit.
There haven’t been many UFO-related found footage films since then. UFO Abduction was remade with a bigger budget in 1998. I don’t want to talk about The Fourth Kind. Jason Eisener’s entry in V/H/S 2 was visceral madness and wicked fun. But there isn’t a UFO-found footage movie to really call “the best.” Until now. Skinwalker Ranch is the Citizen Kane of UFO-found footage movies and one of the best damn UFO movies period in recent years.
Loosely based on the Sherman Ranch in Utah (a hotbed of paranormal activities), Skinwalker Ranch is set in the summer of 2011. Shortly before, a young boy disappeared right before his father’s eyes. There was a flash of light, then the child was gone. A group of investigators sets up camp on the ranch to figure out where the son went and, possibly, what’s behind the paranormal happenings believed to have taken place there.
While the film begins with the ol’ “this footage was found” title card, any sense of reality is thrown out the window when Jon Gries pops up on screen as the father. He’s a great character actor probably best known for playing Ben Linus’ dad on Lost and as Napoleon Dynamite‘s Uncle Rico. The rest of the cast is relatively unknown, but most will recognize Gries (even if they don’t know his name). Steve Berg plays the stalwart head researcher whose stubbornness puts the team at risk. Erin Cahill is the veterinarian who’s unable to explain the cattle mutilations and other bizarre animal deaths around the ranch. Other team members include an ex-military security expert (Ray Reed), an investigative journalist (Devin McGinn – also the director), and one sensible media specialist named Matt (Matthew Rocheleau).
I call Matt sensible because he does one of the most believable things possible in a found footage film – or a horror film in general. He’s the self-proclaimed “resident bitch” of the team and there for a huge part of the film, but when shit starts to get real, he bounces. Just straight up says “naw, fuck this” and leaves. Right on, Matt.
A series of strange phenomenon that gets progressively worse starts after the team arrives. Most of the events in the film are based on folklore that surrounds the actual ranch. There’s the aforementioned cattle mutilation, as well as flying orbs, magnetic fields, and a giant beast with glowing eyes. Aliens make an appearance, but we catch only glimpses of them, which was enough to make my skin crawl.
Despite large beasts and aggressive aliens, Skinwalker Ranch isn’t a monster movie. It’s much more of a claustrophobic, psychological thriller with a UFO backbone. They have some fun with jump-scares, but they’re not used as a cheap crutch to spook the audience. Director Devin McGinn and writer Adam Ohler set up a nice back story using the real Sherman Ranch as a starting point. They developed a rich history of the company that sent the team to the ranch. It isn’t just a group of kids who decided to pick up some cameras – there’s a much darker history to the company and its motives. This is all revealed very organically, without the filmmakers shoving twists in your face to prove how clever they are.
The film is comprised of footage from security cameras inside and outside and a couple of handheld camcorders. Early on, the film does a terrific job establishing the geography of the ranch, so even when five or six people are running around, it’s easy to grasp where they are in relation to each other. The handheld cams are thankfully never disorientating – even when the cameraman is bolting through a pasture in the dark, the video remains relatively steady. Thanks for not making me wanna barf, fictional cameraman!
Skinwalker Ranch just does everything right. The acting is great, the story is engaging, it’s shot in a way that won’t annoy the hell outta you, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m as sick of found footage as the next guy, but this one is a notable entry in the field. It’s a unique take on UFOs, combining a ton of mythology into one scary little package that’ll satisfy anyone looking for a fresh take on aliens and found footage style. Simply put, Skinwalker Ranch kicks ass.
Skinwalker Ranch hits select theaters and VOD on October 30. Devil’s Night!