Shapeshifter (2005)

Starring Jennifer Lee Wiggins, Ocean, Chris Facey, Vas Andreas, Marat Glazer

Directed by Gregory Lemkin

It was this past summer that I was all excited about a rapidly rising direct-to-DVD genre company called The Asylum. I was growing increasingly convinced that they were onto something and even when I wasn’t fully satisfied with the films they made I at least got a sense that they were improving with each new film. Now here we are less than six months later and I’m shaking my head wondering if they’re even trying anymore. Maybe it’s this policy they have to release a new movie every month that’s sapping their creative juices and leading to the release of more unoriginal clunkers like Beast of Bray Road, and Dead Men Walking, and now this one. I guess the folks at The Asylum figured that since they still had the prison set from their recent zombie stinker Dead Men Walking they might as well go ahead and make another movie while they’re at it. Along comes Shapeshifter, a thoroughly dull demonic monster in a prison flick almost completely devoid of energy or imagination.

A new female prison guard recently discharged from the military for insubordination stemming from an incident in Afghanistan gets a job as a deputy at some California prison in hopes of working her way up to patrol duty. Lord knows this prison needs some more guards since they appear to have all of three. On the other hand, there only appears to be about a dozen (maybe less) prisoners to contend with and none of them give off the vibe of being hardened, potentially dangerous cons.

The script works in references about a new wing being added onto the prison and that the events of the film are set in the old wing, which I suspect is really just an excuse to explain why the prison sets are so small. We’re also told that nobody ever visits the prison overnight, which is a convenient way of explaining why later on they won’t be able to just wait it out until help arrives in the morning.

A new prisoner has arrived; picked up off the street for yelling and spitting at pedestrians. The shirtless man only speaks a yet unidentified foreign language, has no ID, and no worldly possessions save for the pants he’s wearing and an envelope containing thousands of dollars. He also has a strange symbol tattooed on his chest. After allowing the time to introduce us to a couple of the predominantly Latino and African American clichéd convict characters, the mysterious new prisoner start ripping flesh out of his arm with his own teeth in order to retrieve a medallion that seems a bit big for one to be smuggling into a prison within one’s own arm flesh. Add some chanting, some not-so-fancy editing, and the mysterious man transforms into a seven-foot, demon-headed Bigfoot creature.

As the satanic Sasquatch chows down on an unfortunate prison guard, everyone – guard and prisoner alike – stands around watching the spectacle with expressions on their faces more along the lines of the kind of reactions I’d get if I stripped naked and began running around with a rubber glove on my head yelling, “Look at me! I’m a squid!” and not nearly as freaked out as you’d imagine people should be to suddenly see someone transform into demonic monster and begin eating others just a few feet away.

I will say this; the shapeshifter in demonic form is a pretty decent man-in-a-rubber suit monster creation; a bit reminiscent of the alien creature from Frankenstein vs. the Space Monster. It just doesn’t behave or do anything that makes it standout from any other movie monster. It slashes people with its claws and feasts on their intestines. To make a monster movie with a premise as run-of-the-mill as this built around a creature as routine as this in this day and age really is inexcusable.

The origins of the monster are revealed very early in the film so I hardly feel like I’m spoiling anything by repeating it here. One of the prisoners is of Romanian descent and he reveals that the Romanian mafia uses a kind of gypsy shapeshifter as enforcers. They’ve sent this shapeshifter to kill him for betraying the Romanian mob or the gypsy magician’s code or something along those lines. Some of the other prisoners want to just serve the guy up to the creature but he tells them that won’t matter because once you’ve seen the beast in its true form it must kill you.

The new deputy leads the prisoners in their attempts to survive and escape while the monster often forgets about its ultimate goal in order to munch down on some more entrails (I suspect these too were leftovers from Dead Men Walking) or takes the time to pose dead bodies in a symbolic manner.

After the first half hour, Shapeshifter completely devolves into your standard characters crawling through ductwork and wandering through hallways, “can we trust one another while we look for any way to escape” monster movie. As unoriginal as this is, this still could have been made into an okay creature feature if not for the sheer lack of creativity, weak characters, and ridiculously slow pace at which it all plays out. This is all stuff we’ve seen a million times before.

The shapeshifter does takes on his human form for the pursuit at times (at least whenever plot convenient) and I must say that a guy that looks like a scrawny, European, Michael Imperioli look-a-like isn’t nearly as threatening as a huge hairy hellbeast. There is a twist involving the shapeshifter’s motivations revealed during the third act but what comes of it moments later only pounds home how little thought went into crafting this particular creature feature.

1 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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