Starring Michael Rooker, Casper Van Dien, Nils Allen Stewart, Sarah Ann Schultz, Robert Miano, Dominique Vandenberg
Directed by Johnny Martin
Skeleton Man is a movie that manages to do the seemingly impossible by being even more incoherent than both House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark combined. It makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve heard reports of the director quitting shortly into production upon hearing how terrible the film was turning out, but have not been able to confirm this. It certainly feels like the sort of film that ran out of money and someone tried to splice what was there together into an actual movie. I would actually hope that’s the case because the film’s narrative is nothing short of gibberish. Uwe Boll has nothing on the makers of Skeleton Man.
Skeleton Man’s plot is quite basic: a military squad heads looking for someone or something (I’m not sure it’s every adequately specified) head into the woods near some important facility… Forget it! I don’t know. Forget I called it basic. It’s basic in theory. The way the filmmakers made the movie that basic premise is an enigmatic maze where every corner leads to a dead end yet it insists that you keep on looking until the 90-minute time limit has expired. Michael Rooker leads a platoon of mostly Sears catalog models into the woods where some other soldiers have been slaughtered by someone or something. That something turns out to be the back-from-the-dead-spirit of an psychotic Native American known as Cotton Mouth Joe, whose skeletal spirit is now killing others for reasons that really only make sense to him. The film’s opening gives you the impression that Joe is mad because a sacred burial ground has been disturbed by nosy archaeologists but the topic is never brought up again after he slaughters them in the film’s opening.
Let’s talk about that opening, as it perfectly sets the stage for the nonsense to come. Two anthropologists in a cabin out in the woods have excavated an Indian burial ground containing artifacts of priceless value; something about a curse gets mentioned in passing. Seconds later, the title character comes crashing through the ceiling, kills the professor, sets fire to the building, and chases his assistant out in the middle of nowhere through the woods that somehow leads to the entrance of an industrial basement. Here he proceeds to dispatch with her and two maintenance workers. Many questions are asked by this sequence.
What is the curse?
Why did Skeleton Man burn the place down destroying the artifacts if he seemingly wanted to protect the sanctity of them?
Why is there an industrial basement out in the middle of the woods?
Why are maintenance people working in an industrial basement out in the middle of the woods armed with shotguns?
Why was that guy in the car already dead if she got to the industrial basement before Skeleton Man?
These questions and more generated in only the film’s first five minutes will forever go unanswered because as soon as this sequence is over none of this (the anthropologists, the artifacts, the curse, etc) will ever be brought up again. There’s still another 85-minutes worth of unexplained questions to come.
The film concludes as undecipherable as it opens. Michael Rooker’s military captain character has set landmines in hopes of blowing up the skeletal figure on horseback. The mines detonate but have no effect other than spooking his horse a bit. Rooker runs for his life; the Skeleton Man gallops in pursuit, and just like that the film jumps to a military chemical complex (possibly a power station, who knows) where Skeleton Man casually walks in through the doors and begins hacking and slashing the employees at will. Huh? This leads to a final confrontation between Rooker and Cotton Mouth Joe inside the facility that ends in a manner so abstract that the only real assurance you have that Joe has been defeated is an explosion and Michael Rooker’s declaration that “It’s over.”
But then, what should one expect from a movie called Skeleton Man about a deranged Native American warrior that returns from the dead in the form of costume shop version of Frank Langella’s Skeletor from the motion picture version of Masters of the Universe? No exaggeration here, folks – the Skeleton Man is a guy in the kind of cheap skeleton mask you could buy at K-Mart around Halloween and wearing a black cloak that looks at times like it could very well be a large Hefty trash bag. It’s mind-blowing to see a costume this shoddy in a production that wasn’t just some no budget slasher film somebody from a decade ago.
Skeleton Man (the name Cotton Mouth Joe is just too stupid for me to use) dispatches his victims with a variety of traditional Native American weapons such as a really long spear, a bow & arrow that fires arrows that can take out helicopter rotors, an axe that looks to have been purchased at a hardware store, and that most traditional of Native American weaponry, the broad sword. Galloping on the woods on a black stallion, phasing in and out of our mortal realm at will, Skeleton Man is an unstoppable killing machine with no discernable motives or objective in mind. Of course, that might also be because his only opposition is a platoon of some of the least credible soldiers to ever get killed off in a pseudo-slasher/Predator type film that are out in the woods for their own not that it matters reasons.
Despite having been organized together and hiking alongside each other for god knows how long, Michael Rooker’s coed squad of plain clothed soldiers halt so that everyone can gather around and introduce themselves to one another as if this is the first time they’ve ever bothered to speak to one another. This scene is really about introducing themselves to us, the audience. These introductions come complete with on-screen graphics telling us each characters’ name and military specialty. This is doubly unnecessary since most will be killed off very early on and their specialties never factor into their confrontations with the title fiend, such as the sniper school instructor who never uses a sniper rifle. Another’s specialty is listed as “underwater demolitions.” Yes, that skill should come in real handy out in the middle of the freakin’ woods!
If you think their credentials are dubious then just wait until you see these soldiers in action. It’s obvious the makers of the movie know absolutely nothing about the military. One soldier decides on her own to split from the group and go exploring; the word “insubordination” clearly isn’t even in her vocabulary. Run out of ammo after emptying a full clip into an otherworldly being on horseback with no effect; just charge at it while waving your gun above your head and screaming like a madman. Yeah, that’ll work. I can only imagine a person with real military experience watching this film utterly slack-jawed. If R. Lee Ermey ever sees this movie he just might kill someone.
The greatest bit of mind-blowing military strategy is reserved for Casper Van Dien’s minor supporting character. Having also employed the sound strategy of splitting off from his squad, Van Dien (sporting a scar on his face in an effort to show range) spots Skeleton Man taking a nighttime nature walk and follows him. Next thing you know there’s a highway out in the middle of the woods and a trucker has pulled over his semi-truck to get for reasons unknown. Casper uses his supreme military intellect harkens back to the chapter in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, where the master tactician wrote of the sound battlefield strategy of carjacking an 18-wheeler and running down your seemingly unarmed foe standing in the middle of the road. A solid plan except Skeleton Man has seen The Wraith countless times so he knows how well optical illusions work against speeding drivers. Things do not end well for General Van Dien.
The platoon eventually runs across an old Indian that looks more like Joe Estevez in an Edgar Winters wig dressed like a hippie, who immediately begins spouting off about wanting beans the moment they approach him. Being a connoisseur of beans, the old man instantly recognizes the much inferior army beans but does not reject them because as every bean lover knows, army beans are still better than no beans at all. He proceeds to tell them the tale of Cotton Mouth Joe in the form of a ridiculous flashback showing Cotton Mouth Joe going berserk and slaughtering most of his own tribe for ever vague reasons until Sacagawea kills him with an arrow. We never see this old man character again after this scene and nothing in the flashback impacts anything to come.
Michael Rooker recalls something terrible that happened to him on a previous mission in a flashback sequence of his own that’s obviously composed of footage from an entirely different film. And again, this has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else.
No one moment sums up the movie better than when Skeleton Man kills a fisherman – A FISHERMAN THAT IS FISHING A WATERFALL! This guy is standing on a ledge about midway up waterfall with a line cast. Is he trying to hook fish as they go over the falls or is the line going all the way down to the pond below, and if that is the case, then why doesn’t he just go stand next to the pond? He gets shot with an arrow and drops about 30-feet to his death down the waterfall. Rooker and company hear his scream and then go about their hiking. Who this guy is wasn’t important, why he was fishing from a waterfall is never explained, and his death means nothing. I think this scene perfectly encapsulates the film’s mentality.
Whether one comes away from Skeleton Man having been thoroughly entertained by the film’s Ed Wood quality or disgusted that they wasted 90 minutes of their existence watching something this inept, there is one thing that should be evident to all: Michael Rooker is our greatest living actor. Not Robert DeNiro, not Russell Crowe, not Daniel Day Lewis – Michael Rooker is the greatest actor alive! That he manages to get through this film with a straight face is a testament to his acting abilities. Every so often he gets a look on his face that conveys “I only agreed to this film for the money but even I never expected it to turn out this bad. Still, I’m a professional and I’m going to do the job I was hired for.” Bless you, Mr. Rooker. You are a prince amongst men and an actor of unparalleled fortitude.
This is one of those movies that requires two distinct ratings based on what frame of mind you’re in when you sit down to watch it. The only reason anyone should ever watch Skeleton Man is to either gawk at how unbelievably inept it is or to have bad movie night with some friends to do a little MST3K riffing at home. If you go into the movie with that attitude then I assure you it will deliver like few films you’ll ever witness. If you go into the movie looking for a legitimate movie watching experience then you better prepare yourself for one of the worst of your life. Either way, Skeleton Man is guaranteed to leave you in a state of shock and awe.
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