Genre friendly studios Lionsgate and Constantin Film - the German outfit behind the Resident Evil movies - together with late special effects wizard Stan Winston were the driving forces behind this lively werewolf movie, which suffers from post-production attempts to turn an R-rated horror movie into a PG-13 romp. Loosely inspired by Native American legends of the lycanthropic “yee nadlooshi”, Skinwalkers finds twelve year old Tim (Matthew Knight) and his devoted single mother Rachel (Rhona Mitra) living in a pleasant small town, blissfully unaware that Uncle Jonas (Elias Koteas), his caring daughter Katherine (Sarah Carter), her boyfriend Adam (Shawn Roberts) and even the friendly neighbourhood mailman (Lyriq Bent) are part of a close-knit community of heroic werewolves driven to protect them from a gang of grungy, leather-clad biker wolves led by ruthless Caleb (Jason Behr) and including his sexy girlfriend Sonja (Natassia Malthe), snarling Zo (Kim Coates) and mute psycho Grenier (Rogue Johnston), whose fearsome matriarch (Wendy Crewson) wants the boy dead. It transpires that come Tim’s thirteenth birthday, his mixed-blood heritage will endow him with the ability to cure the werewolf curse.
Although Skinwalkers’ core idea of rival monster clans locked in battle recalls Underworld (2003) (indeed, Rhona Mitra went on to headline the third instalment: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)) and its ethical debate between co-existing with humans or accepting their bestial nature harks back to The Howling (1980), structurally the movie this draws from most of all is not a werewolf film at all but Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). This is evident not just in Rachel’s gradual evolution into a survivalist warrior-mother able to protect her son, but in the story basically boiling down to one, relentless chase, plus a lively monster vs. monster climax at an abandoned factory. It is foremost an action movie and as such former visual effects supervisor-turned-filmmaker James Isaac - who made the silly but entertaining Jason X (2001) - emphasises pace above giving room for the ideas in the script to breathe. However, the film does throw one effective twist into the mix that injects some welcome psychological tension.
Often underrated, Rhona Mitra delivers a committed turn but remains underused. Elsewhere the supporting characters are scripted as stick figures whose rapid deaths fail to move, but dependable genre players Elias Koteas and Sarah Carter, a Smallville veteran, more recently on Steven Spielberg’s alien invasion TV series Falling Skies, prove especially good at bringing conviction to some ludicrous dialogue. Scripters James DeMonaco, Todd Harthan and James Roday detour into pointless sadism (e.g. a potential rape victim is saved then mauled by the werewolves) but also lapse into silliness including scenes of lusty werewolf sex as unintentionally hilarious as those in Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch (1985). Surprisingly, given Stan Winston’s involvement, for the most part film skimps on the werewolf effects, though not the bullets. Frenetic editing robs some of the shocks of their punch, but the finale is lively and well-executed with an intriguing payoff.