Fitting that writer director Justin McConnell’s fourth feature length film LIFECHANGER is a product of Canada, the northern neighbor of Hollywood that gave us decades of body horror thanks to David Cronenberg. After all, McConnell’s latest film that premiered this past July at FantasiaFest is first and foremost a tip of the hat to the genre, burrowing itself into the frontal lobe like a bullet. It’s a genre that, as of late, has been gnawing its way through film with Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade implanting a heavy-dose of awesome into our cerebral cortex as well as Venom’s uh, uneven yet intoxicating bite taking hold of Tom Hardy fans everywhere.
Like the human body it’s always changing, growing from the bowels of horror to stand firmly on the shoulders of other genres, often speaking volumes about the current climate. And while neither a life changer nor a game changer (and certainly without much of a message), LIFECHANGER does manage to move with the precision of a hit-man and the impact of a whiskey on the rocks; just don’t expect a chaser.
Opening on a young woman in bed, McConnell’s film quickly sets about establishing its narrative at a discombobulating pace. This is Drew, a shapeshifter who survives by murdering and jumping from one body to the next. There’s no semblance of who or what he once was outside of an aged narration (voiced by Bill Oberst Jr.), and not much is offered in explaining any of it. With a run-time of less than 90 minutes, McConnell quickly gets to work showing us the grotesque transformation that lies within his film, one that feels like a hybrid between Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and Jack Sholder’s The Hidden. Victims are rattled and sucked dry, leaving withered and vein cracked corpses (courtesy of special effects artist David Scott and make-up artist Alexandra Anger) that are hacked limb to limb and burned in a vacant field that’s littered with blackened bones.
To make matters more interesting, each body has a shelf life (which can only be delayed through the use of cocaine), and when time is up the body begins to rot. As puss-filled blisters covers his body, he must seek out a new host in order to aid him on a mission of survival.
Along the way, Drew takes on many forms – most notably Rachel (Rachel VanDuzer) and then Robert (Jack Foley) – and absorbs his victims memories, an insignificant detail given how little emotional connectivity he has with the lives of others. Drew spends most of his time trying to reconvene with Julia (Lora Burke), a woman he loves from his past who frequents a local bar that as Julia puts it, “never seems to change.” In order to get closer to her, he must enter the lives of others, and in killing them he subsequently (and cruelly) discards of their existence in ways that make you wonder if this murderous being even knows what love is.
Except each new body gives LIFECHANGER a fresh skin that allows its story to feel jump-started if it ever begins to lag, and it’s wholly necessary given its break-neck speed and murky backstory. We never feel drawn to Drew, whose only connective tissue comes in the form of his ill-placed narration (which dictates age and gender) and Julia, who acts as a fixture of his existence as well as a constant in a life that’s quite literally changing faces every day.
It’s through the bars Bukowski-esque intimacies where we discover Julia and Drew (played by Ry Barrett in her flashbacks) once shared a life together with a child. After complications with Parkinson’s their child passed away, and in needing to take the form of another person in order to survive he vanished in the middle of the night without a trace. Ever since, Julia has been frequenting the tavern, relishing in its sameness yet longing for that unbridled love she once had.
Julia gives the story its emotional core, a longing that’s tangible in a film that can seemingly feel too quick for its own good. She’s the one voice that resonates, and in spending necessary time with her we begin to feel something akin to emotion through the hit-and-run mayhem that ensues as the police close in on Drew; whose reckless abandonment for human life begins to catch up with him.
And while loss, longing and love play a key role in alleviating its crime heavy story, the severe lack of humanity (and I mean humanity in a broad sense) is what makes LIFECHANGER feel almost nihilistic in its approach. A thick and rough skin that coats its interchangeable character with a forgettable mission of blind love. It’s a scary vision of a world out to fend for itself that never contributes to its underlying horror, instead focusing on the thrill of its inspired plot that engages with gnarled bodily effects and a pulse-a-minute story that never quite slows down to find its heart.