Empathy is a word I find myself typing a lot these days. Got to get the word out, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others is a righteous action. We must seek compassion not only for the less fortunate who suffer under the will of the powerful but find consideration for the powerful as well. To ignore the motivations that propel them through their actions would be as foolish as to ignore the tortured around you. Empathy for the enemy is a virtuous and trying exercise.
The Universal Monsters always offered insight into the creatures that stalked the shadows. We should feel no sorrow for a bloodsucker, or a lowly beast that howls under moonlight and rips the flesh from couples that dare to pass through his woods. Frankenstein’s monster is a jumbled collection of various chunks of meat stitched together for the sole purpose of experiencing pain. A sympathy for beasts spawns from the fact that they’re trapped by their biology and the cold science of humans who placed themselves above their station.
Imagining our brain inside their wretched hide ignites our connection. Using monstrosity as a gateway to global unification is quicker than a dozen Sunday school admonitions of “to walk a mile in their shoes.” No one would choose the life of a gill-man. It’s a tactic replicated by like-minded monster lovers like Clive Barker, Guillermo del Toro, and now, Justin McConnell.
In his creature feature Lifechanger, McConnell introduces us to Drew, a rather pathetic shapeshifter forced to absorb and duplicate the shells of others before his own casing rots into oblivion. We first meet him occupying the body of a woman; the transformation has been somewhat confrontational and problematic. A struggle resulted in a knife wound to the abdomen, which is usually not a problem, but for the first time in Drew’s existence, an injury from one inhabitant has traveled to another.
With his body rapidly deteriorating, Drew needs a new ride ASAP. Decades of operating as a changeling has taught him that it’s best to adapt to his body’s daily routine. Returning to the woman’s home address, Drew finds her boyfriend out of his mind with concern. The police are on the way, and his options are dwindling.
Reinforced by years of placing his wellbeing over others, Drew has learned the ease of taking a life. Does a lion feel the pain of a zebra? Of course, not. Standing over another body, with a police officer stepping into the kitchen, and a delivery boy ringing the doorbell, Drew’s instincts are not predatory; they’re that of basic survival. He must only act.
In a little more than twenty minutes, McConnell has established a mournful soul worthy of Bela Lugosi. The added disadvantage being the lack of a singular performance. Well, kinda. We sense Drew’s plight through the disembodied voice of Bill Oberst Jr. Stuck within the faces of Elitsa Bako, Steve Kasan, Rachel VanDuzer, and Jack Foley, the voice of Oberst is the constant that bonds audience to beast.
Observing through a wall of flesh that can never be his own, Drew’s distance between mind and body is ever growing. Oberst is given the opportunity to insert Film Noir self-hatred into a rotten reality. He’s William Holden, the bloated body in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool, underlining his misery and preparing us for the inevitable doom that awaits this story.
Also, like Sunset Boulevard, Lifechanger has a pre-occupation with a close-up. Dangling out of reach is Drew’s relationship with Julia (Lora Burke). He parades every new body through the tavern where this pitiful, wilting flower goes to water her melancholy. Life has dealt her a variety of tragedies, and somewhere along his voyages, Drew’s conscious has latched onto her pain.
Her depression is a mirror to his own. Briefly brushing up against her ignites new purpose for Drew. Julia becomes a challenge to accept, a possibility of a kindred spirit waiting to soothe a lifetime of revulsion.
Drew is desperate to gain re-entry to her bubble. Not her body, nothing so ordinary or simplistic for his capabilities, but a genuine personal association. He attempts to find a physique to meet her desires, treating each corpse like a new necktie. Not a fan of red? Let’s try the blue one. Every skin equalling an awkward exchange…until the right color strikes her fancy.
Lifechanger is a return to classic monster pathos. Justin McConnell and Bill Oberst Jr. place us deep inside a fiend that should be abhorrent, but like Dracula and The Wolf Man, the creature captures our empathy. Drew demands our attention. He’s a shapeshifter fueled by the act of slaughter, and we’re just tourists who have come upon him in the Serengeti. We click our cameras, make our judgments, and maybe a few of us conceive his experience.