Palpable, alluring, and cringe-worthy were some of the words to describe the science fiction/horror film, Replace. Drawing from influences and homages including the seven deadly sins, Frankenstein (1797), and Alice in Wonderland (1865) placed against a canvas of futuristic body horror and science, we discover a Pandora’s box of youth. The second feature from filmmaker Norbert Keil and first full journey down the rabbit hole of horror cinema, Keil co-wrote the script with legendary storyteller Richard Stanley to tell the tale of a young and vain beauty named Kira (Rebecca Forsythe). After a night of sexual pleasure, Kira awakens disoriented and realizes that her memory has been affected for no reason at all. Without much exposition or understanding, we learn that Kira’s skin has begun to age at an unsettling and accelerated rate beginning with the tip of her finger. As she begins to dig for clues and put the pieces together against the Toronto backdrop, Kira meets the friendly Sophia (Lucie Aron) who gives her a source of comfort and support.

Feeling like more is out of place, she realizes that she has missed a doctors’ appointment concerning her condition with a Dr. Crober (Barbara Crampton). During the visit to Crober’s new age style office, Kira is left in the dark but does realize that her skin can heal itself by replacing the decaying patches by peeling them off and adhering healthy tissue. Once Kira leaves the office, she begins a dangerous spiral of experimenting and replacing her skin with a variety of victims that she hunts and abducts across the city. At first, it is a way to ease the pain and feel whole on many levels. It feeds into her vanity and fulfills her. However, as Kira falls deeper into the darkness, she becomes addicted to replacing her skin with fresh and healthy skin to slow the overall decay. Sophie and Kira must face the disturbing nature of her condition as well as the ghosts of their past, uncover the mystery of Crober’s role and fight the monster of addiction.

Replace was one of the true gems in the 2017 Fantasia lineup. Surreal, unsettling and tense throughout, Keil and Stanley’s collaboration creates a cautionary tale for the modern image-crazed society and extremes we go to in order to stay young. The film blends several traditional horror troupes against a non-traditional love story. Creating a macabre Valentine, Keil addresses the idea of love being more than on the surface and how sin can bring two souls together. It is driven by a cast that has such a presence but all exist in that gray area between right, wrong and duty. At times, the characters are very tragic and other times sympathetic, and the cast’s conviction drives the film, including a forceful and menacing performance by veteran figurehead Barbara Crampton. Her talent and immersion in the role of Crober enhances the standout performances from Forsythe and Aron throughout the film.

Both Forsythe and Aron have great chemistry together, and their character’s form a empathetic bond throughout the pain, conflict, and pleasure they experience. For me, this heavy female lead cast elevated Replace, making it a better fit for the narrative, themes and ideals Keil wants to convey surrounding body horror, emotional suffering, and relationship dynamics. Building on a mounting tension and mystery throughout, the script and visual palate offer a wide variety of challenges physically, emotionally and cerebrally for the cast.

The visual landscape feels like a dream at times and a cold reality at others. Keil’s crew including the Cinematographer Tim Kuhn, production designer Fryderyk Swierczynski, art directors Anna Eppstein and Fvery Ganzer, set Decorators Hanna Baumann and Danilo Gerul all deserve praise for the wonderland of textures, colors, shadow and symmetry in each frame. They create a labyrinth with Kuhn’s camera movements, leveling, angles and framing which invokes and captures so much. Though, the lighting choices are hit or miss at times. The first act at times features very oversaturated lighting. Sources such as the sun and overheads engulf the scene or character with outpours of light drowning her and start bursting at others. In contrast for the second act, the lighting changes with Kira’s mindset. It is more focused and uses neon in locations like the club and during Kira’s nightly walks through the city. An example of the framing and lighting is within the final reel. Inside Crober’s lab, Kira is strapped onto an examining table. Kuhn portions the upper third of Kira’s face in the frame as the changing lights above reflect and at times encased within the boundary of her eyeballs.

In each act of the film, you can find a range of visual styles from noir to futuristic to Giallo and more. An example of visual style reflecting is Crober’s appearance. She has very rigid lines, smooth surfaces, sharp angles, solid colors and a large canvas of space in her wardrobe, appearance and lab. In contrast, Kira is anything but straight and rigid. Her appearance becomes transformed by the skin disease, changing from a free spirit without a worry into something brittle, decaying and macabre. With the disease slowly consuming her, the outer layer husking and flaking is cringe-worthy at times. Hats off to Keil and Stanley who made this condition more than just a show piece that many films of this ilk fall into. The skin disease and Kira’s embodiment of it is reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s body horror films. His influence is evident throughout, whether through the physical manifestation of Kira’s whirlwind of emotions or the sexuality and intimacy of her disease.

Composed by Tom Batoy and Franco Tortora, Replace’s score offers a path into Kira’s darkness and emotional conflict. Each track offers different perspectives, melodies, tones, and textures. At times frightening, lustful, intense and tragic, this score is the pulse of each conflict, reflection, memory, and revelation that you experience. Whether it is different variations of an organ in different locations or a piano solo filling you with Kira’s isolation and dreams (which make it more tragic) or even the variations of electric, techno and industrial music for the hunt and addiction sequences, the music immerses the viewer and finds another way we can connect with Kira.

Keil, cast, and crew have a hypnotic touch with Replace. The film has its issues of course. The editing is one of the weaker points after watching it multiple times. Yes, the film is supposed to be a disjointed trip through the looking glass but at times some scenes outstay their welcome. Also, I felt at certain points the story background was underdeveloped, especially in relation to Kira’s past. Finally, while the viewer may feel for Kira, she is also a very unlikable character. At times you wonder if she deserves what she is happening to her throughout.

While Replace continues its film festival run, make sure to check it out. This is a film with depth and morality that needs more than one screening to absorb each aspect of the filmmaking process on both sides of the camera.