Skeleton Man (2004)


If you ever wondered how the SyFy Channel managed for original movies when it was plain old Sci-Fi Channel, before Asylum had hit their stride, then look no further! Thanks to the “Hardcore Gore” DVD set (12 films on 3 DVDs!) and Nu Image Films, we have yet another gem.

Okay, “gem” is pushing it. Heck, “film” is pushing it. “Thing that stayed on my TV for 90 minutes” is about as much as I can muster. “Skeleton Man” is truly, spectacularly, aggressively incompetent, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen and, were it better known, a real dark horse contender for those “worst films of all time” lists. From the instant the film starts, when the DVD is so cheap that it starts off in the wrong aspect ratio, you know you’re in for something bad.

A couple of scientists have found a skull. Well, at least a skull. It appears the Native American gods are less than thrilled about this, so their legendary spirit of vengeance, who we later discover is named Cottonmouth Joe, turns up and kills them. The house they were working in was evidently storing oily rags and blasting caps, because it turns into a fiery inferno remarkably quickly – then Joe is off into the night, or something. I was honestly confused already at this point, and it immediately got more confusing. After a few more people wandering through the forest get killed (by implication, soldiers looking for Joe) we’re introduced to “the stars”.

Michael Rooker, the fine actor who’s been a part of many great films and TV shows, is the Captain, Casper Van Dien (who was great in “Starship Troopers” and then should have fired his agent) is the Lieutenant, and there’s a whole bunch of cannon fodder. This scene is a perfect encapsulation of the oddity that is this film. They’re an elite special forces team, “undercover” (probably because the producers couldn’t afford the correct gear), and going by their dialogue, they’re meeting each other for the first time in the middle of the woods. During their long walk to the middle of nowhere (it’s stated that they’re 70km from the nearest evidence of humanity) they never said a word to each other, obviously – and while they’re introducing themselves, their names and specialities also appear at the bottom of the screen, like they didn’t trust the viewers of this garbage to pay attention to the dialogue. If you were wondering why a team of people hunting a missing group of soldiers in the forests of the north-western USA would need an underwater demolitions expert, then you’ve got a long road ahead of you, my friend.

It’s at around this point we meet Skeleton Man (aka Cottonmouth Joe) properly. He rides a horse, and the only visible bit of him is his skull-head, the rest of him being a large black cloak. To say the producers didn’t spend too much time on his getup would be an understatement – I get the feeling they just rooted around in a fancy-dress box until they found something a bit scary. His motivation, after killing the people who…disturbed his bones?…is, it must be said, a little unclear. When he starts killing just random people who happen to be in this incredibly remote forest (including someone who’s fishing from halfway up a cliff, perhaps the most futile exercise in this film) it moves from unclear to irrelevant. He’s just really into killing!

We may get the plot explained to us when our soldiers encounter a blind Native American, who tells them the story of Joe in return for a tin of beans. Problem is, he mumbles and the bits I caught didn’t really make any sense anyway. But our soldier friends start dying off around now, and I feel I must try and get to the bottom of this to help you get a flavour of how bonkers this film is.

I don’t know much about Army tactics. I’m a pacifist socialist, so it’s not my cup of tea, but I think I’ve learned enough to know what you don’t do. If you’re in a small group in enemy territory, probably best to stick together, provide cover for each other, that sort of thing. If you wander off for a look round, then you’re really just asking to get impaled on a spear. If, after your mate dies by getting impaled on a spear and you’ve tried and failed to kill the invincible Joe, and you’ve said “let’s all take shifts on watch”, and someone still wanders off, then that’s a person who really deserves to die.


Army tactics have been dealt with, so how about training? The guy who was an expert sniper uses a sub-machine gun, shooting from the hip, which has to be a no-no; but that’s not even the worst of it. While Joe seems pretty invincible, he definitely gets affected by certain attacks. But the highly trained elite soldiers seem unable to hit much of anything, apart from trees (PS. Special effects people, bullets don’t spark when they hit trees), and on more than one occasion they remove themselves from pretty good cover for the sole purpose of allowing a passing Joe to slice their head off. My notes are full of uses of the word “dumbass”, and that really describes how pathetic these people are. Did none of them complain to the director during filming that they were being made to look like the stupidest group of people to ever walk the earth?

My favourite is one particularly tough talking woman, though. After saying, “if it breathes, I can kill it” (more on the origins of that line later), she walks off on her own – quelle surprise! – and is immediately trapped by Joe. So, we get a bit of shooting before her head is literally exploded, and…well, it’s plainly obvious that the actress had never held a gun before, and doesn’t particularly like it. By this point, I’d stopped recording every instance of stupidity from this film – presumably, you don’t want a novel-length film review, and remembering it is slightly painful for me – but the dialogue deserves mention. Every word out of the solders’ mouths is the cheesiest hard-bitten garbage, or a weird monologue about what it’s like to lose your fellow soldiers. It’s like the scriptwriters just took every other film from Nu Image, cut random lines of dialogue from them, put them in a hat, had the actors draw them out and whatever came out, that’s what the actor said. It’s genuinely perplexing.

Casper Van Dien’s big moment warrants, I feel, closer inspection. It’s daytime, and they’ve decided to start with one-hour watches, while everyone else gets some sleep. Female Cannon Fodder B has attracted Casper, so he volunteers to sit with her. Rather than take watch, they wander off, and Cannon Fodder dies pretty quickly. Luckily, none of this noise wakes up the rest of the soldiers, but Casper is so annoyed, he runs off into the wilderness. Suddenly, it’s night-time, and he finds a road (in the remote wilderness, nowhere near anywhere, remember) with a parked-up oil tanker on it. So, he commandeers the tanker and decides to drive it into Cottonmouth Joe – problem is, he’s a terrible driver and crashes it, causing a gigantic explosion, way before he ever gets near Joe – although, Joe did kindly stand on the road waiting for the tanker to hit him. Then, Casper runs back into the woods and promptly has his legs chopped off. Back in the daytime, the rest of the soldiers don’t seem to mind that their Watch disappeared, and seem to have forgotten about them until they happen upon their fallen comrade, still clinging to life. How long was he out there?

I’ve not even mentioned the use of footage from other Nu Image films, or the bit with the helicopter, because the incompetence that permeates every bit of this film is too much to bear. But you may have noticed a few hints that indicate this film is, to be polite, an “homage” to “Predator” – the line of dialogue above, the indestructible villain in remote wilderness vs a group of soldiers, plus weird visual effects every time we see through their eyes. But, this film is so rotten it’s like if someone had asked the Predator to make a film, basing his view of humanity solely on the people he met in that jungle. Actually, that film would probably be better than this one.

No, that's a great special effect

No, that’s a great special effect

Luckily, there’s a chemical plant in the middle of the remote wilderness, and that plant has some sort of reactor core that can be used to blow up Joe, once Rooker tricks him into going in there. The whole scene inside the plant just stinks of something like this:

WRITER: Well, that script sucks, perhaps I shouldn’t have written it on peyote while suffering from a severe concussion.

PRODUCER: Hey, my buddy owns a factory and he says we can use it for a couple of days. Can you write a finale that uses a factory?

DIRECTOR: (says nothing, just continues playing with his Predator action figures)

Add on a classic horror film ending – where the sacrifice of the main characters was for naught, as the baddie implausibly survives and sneaks off to come back in the sequel – and you’ve got what could be the one of the very worst of the worst, a definite contender for the bottom 10 of all the movies we’ve reviewed for this site. I’m convinced the editor was severely mentally ill, at the very least, because there’s just no other way to explain how they put the scenes together that way, watched it at the end and went “yes, this is definitely the best we could manage”.

Nu Image – – are an interesting lot. Their formula for many years was to make the sort of films that this site loves – trashy action movies and sci-fi (including the later “Project Shadowchaser” films, and the “Cyborg Cop” series, much beloved here at the ISCFC). Then, sometime around 2005 they appear to have gotten thoroughly sick of films like “Skeleton Man” and got an executive who, sort of, seemed bothered about making half-decent films. Or at least profitable ones – they’ve been responsible for “The Expendables” franchise, gave regular work to top-drawer action director Isaac Florentine, and brought back the “Conan” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchises.

This absolute disaster could well be the straw that broke the camel’s back, so we have “Skeleton Man” to thank for all those new Stallone films. Dammit, I hate it even more now.

Ratings: thumbs down


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