Gunned down in the snowy wilderness and desperate for shelter, Billy Cavanagh is taken in by kooky old lady Agnes, unaware that her isolated log cabin is being stalked by a bloodthirsty skinless creature hellbent on getting inside.
Before I begin the review, I would like to thank filmmakers like Charlie Steed and Todd Sheets (from my short-term recent memory) as well as the many others who make their films out of love of the horror genre as well as a love of cinema in general. You can feel the love in their devotion to bringing their visions to life, how they do not let limitations stop them from realizing their dreams, and by their repeated attempts to create something that they need to express.
So many beginning filmmakers use horror as a stepping stone to launch a film career because it is usually cheap to make with decent profit if it does even moderately well. Using the horror film as a tool is fine, but, like any true craftsman (craftsperson?), you must respect your tools before you get their best benefits working for you.
I can tolerate a lot from someone making horror movies out of love.
Which brings me to Charlie Steed’s “Winterskin”.
During a heavy snowfall, a rural family finds itself fending off an unseen assailant. Unfortunately, the family is overwhelmed, and all but the youngest son are shot. As he attempts to escape the room under the flooring where he was hiding, a bloody, red-skinning humanoid crawls towards him. Screams are heard as the camera cuts to shots of the snow-covered landscape.
Next, we see a young man, Billy, and an older man, his father, as they trudge through the nearly waist-deep snow. The father tells Billy to stay close and not fall behind. Within seconds, Billy wanders away and both men seem to be suddenly struck deaf as they call out to each other.
Billy makes his way to a cabin that seems a bit worse for wear. While attempting to gain entrance or to see if someone is home, he is shot in the leg by someone in the cabin. He awakens in the care of Agnes. Before she finishes her first rambling speech, you pretty much know this lady ain’t all there. And she’s still armed. With a gun that we’ve seen before.
Meanwhile, Billy’s father and 3 other old gents spend their time searching for Billy, but keep finding cabins littered with dead bodies left in the most gruesome state.
This all sounds interesting, and it should be.
Given the early part of the film, you could be forgiven for assuming you are watching a very bloody retelling of an old folktale because the costumes seem like something from Bilbo Baggins’ home shire, and the landscape is covered in perpetual snow. Then Billy ignores his father before the man’s words have left his mouth, and things start stacking against the film.
First thing to wrestle with is Rowena Bentley as loony old Agnes. She tucks into her role with gusto. The downside is that a little gusto goes a long way. Ultimately, the actress seems to swing from reasonably fine to full-blown scenery chewing with the chewing style being the one you get most often. You almost want to beg for her to deliver a line without trying to milk it for a broader performance. But an actress should only perform in this way if the director either let her or instructed her to do so.
The second issue to contend with is David Lenik as Billy. He may be a fine actor, but the film is essentially two strong-willed people dancing around insanity, violence, and the unexpected; Lenik’s version of “strong-willed” had me envisioning The B-52s’ Fred Schneider attempting to fill Conan the Barbarian’s sandals. Lenik delivers a stronger performance in Mr. Steed’s “Deadman Apocalypse”, but, honestly, that’s faint praise. As Billy, I half-expected him to stamp his feet and shriek, “Oh, you are SO mean, Agnes.” Agnes would have chewed him up and spit him out in real life.
Once more, Steed should have pushed for performances that would have justified the extended time we spend listening to these two characters. Perhaps Bentley’s performance would have been more impressive if she had been playing against an equally strong character, but what we get is an irresistible force steamrolling a squishy object.
While I can appreciate loyalty to cast/crew from earlier projects, I really wonder why Steed keeps inserting Barrington De La Roche into his films. While De La Roche is a very memorable figure, he, much like the iconic Tor Johnson, cannot seem to act beyond uttering his dialogue in a very unnatural way. His non-performance constantly pulled me out of the movie’s world (not hard to do, so I did NOT need help). With all that being said, if someone could write a script that plays to De La Roche’s unique delivery, that someone could have a major cult film on their hands.
In very basic terms, “Winterskin” just did not hit the minimum levels to make the film work. The concept behind the story is appealing, yet Steed does not craft the film in such a way that it grabs the viewer and forces them to be an unwilling inhabitant of that cabin of craziness. Instead, the viewer perks up when voices get shrill which is far too often and to no effect.
The love of the horror genre is all over “Winterskin”, but even the best of intentions does not a good film make.