at Fantasia International Film
Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
Making its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, Lifechanger is a lean, mean, and intense dose of shapeshifter horror with a chilling message perfectly suited to the complex conversations of the Me Too era. Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Justin McConnell, Lifechanger follows a mysterious “skin-walker” who steals the form, memories, and lives of his victims, leaving behind a withered husk of a corpse. This creepy crime premise might have you expecting the movie would follow a cagey detective who is on this cruel creature’s trail. But McConnell offers something far more surprising, sophisticated, and richly disturbing.
Lifechanger centers on this shape-shifting serial killer, following him from one body to the next, and allowing the audience access into his innermost thoughts through voiceover narration. When a beautiful woman at a bar casually asks our anti-hero if he’s a “good person,” Bill Oberst Jr.’s wry, weary voiceover sighs in unspoken interjection, “I don’t know if I even consider myself a person.” With this dark joke, the creature confesses to the audience a truth too horrid to say aloud, even through someone else’s stolen lips.
This creature does not crave the killing. Murder is his means of survival. When his skin begins to break out a “rot” of lesions, it’s time to find a new form. So another must die. The depiction of this process is fittingly ghoulish, showing victims scream and quiver as their skin squirms, transforming into swiftly mummified remains. To their killer, murder is mundane. Disposing of the bodies is an annoying routine, like taking out the trash or flossing. His dispassion in the face of all this horror is chilling. But the killing is not only about survival. Through voiceover, the creature tells us of the great love he shared with the beautiful Julia (Lora Burke), a heartbroken woman who no longer recognizes him. He longs to be with her again. So, in various forms–be they male or female–he returns to the same hole-in-the-wall bar to spend a few precious hours in her company. Carefully, their shared backstory will unfold. But it will not lead to a happy ending.
As horror, Lifechanger is satisfying on several levels. In terms of visuals, it’s suitably gory and grim. The transformations are unnerving; the killer’s blasé attitude toward his carnage is perfectly stomach churning. The story is as fascinating as it is unpredictable. With each new body, new possibilities and problems emerge, pushing our practiced, methodical killer to hasty and increasingly reckless decisions. Tension mounts as he circles closer and closer to the gentle Julia. And along the way, the creature’s portrayal is passed from an array of actors, Elitsa Bako to Steve Kasan to Rachel VanDuzer to Jack Foley. Each performance is distinctive yet connected, charismatic and riveting. But what makes Lifechanger truly haunting is the final revelation of this shady shapeshifter, something too terrifically shocking to spoil in a review.
Though repulsed by the carnage he causes, you might feel a pang of empathy for a creature that does not lust for destruction, yet feels helpless in avoiding it. The voiceover performance of Oberst is charmingly beleaguered in the way of old detective movies, in which we are oddly enchanted by the world-weary figure’s gruff candor and romantic wish for salvation. But as the bodies pile up, the spell begins to break. More and more we realize that this shapeshifter is like Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, an unreliable narrator spouting the pretty excuses of a beguiling abuser.
His story is juicy and putrid, his longing brilliant. But his justifications are ultimately pathetic and insufficient, convincing perhaps no one but himself. Lifechanger entreats you to observe all the horror that’s unfolded, and see that its protagonist is a taker who spins a sensational story to excuse his crimes and paint himself as a tragic anti-hero. But he is a villain. Yet in the end, even with all his powers, pain, and tragic past, this creature is both monster and man. However he might strive to set himself apart as other or more, he is a human who prioritizes his desires over all else, even those he purports to love. That is Lifechanger‘s greatest, most haunting horror. Into place falls a spine-tingling analogy about how abusers can commit atrocious acts, yet see themselves as some sort of twisted hero or even a victim to be pitied. Following you out of the theater is the haunting message: there are those among us who look human, act civil, and yet at their core possess a black hole of selfishness that allows them to do heinous things, for which they’ll never feel truly guilty, only justified, even romantic.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com