A Monster with Many Faces: Justin McConnell's 'Lifechanger' has its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival

Movies Features

Of the monsters on-screen at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, there are some ghosts, some demons, a fish creature, zombies galore… and a skinwalker named Drew.

Drew, in his many forms, is the character at the center of writer/director Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger, which had its world premiere at the Montreal fest last Friday. Drew isn’t a bad guy… so he thinks. Ever since he was a kid, he’s been able to absorb the bodies of other people, along with their voices, mannerisms and memories. When he takes over someone’s body, he continues to live his new “host”’s life, because—explains McConnell—“it doesn’t raise any questions. Nobody starts looking for [the actual person], because they’re there.” After a while, in a gruesomely realistic bit of practical FX, Drew’s body starts to rot, and he moves on to a new victim.  

And as for the string of dead, semi-decomposed bodies Drew leaves behind? “There comes a point where survival becomes just another job. Sweat and elbow grease moves the world forward. In this, and in all things, it’s repetitive, it’s necessary, and it’s lonely,” he says, in the voiceover that runs throughout the film. McConnell, though he acknowledges the horror of his protagonist’s decades-long murder spree, can’t help but be somewhat understanding: “If you put two people in a room and you lock them in there and say ‘You’re never getting out,’ one person’s walking away. It doesn’t matter how good a person you are. When it comes down to pure survival, maybe someone would decide it was bad, but most people would probably survive.”

Survival, nowadays, is getting to tougher for Drew. Each body used to last for years before he could move on to the next, carefully chosen to be someone fewer people would miss. Still, his inevitable departure, when it happens, creates “ripples” for the people he leaves behind. One of those people,  Julia (Lora Burke) he’s fallen in love with and is desperate to get back to… in one body or another.

The bodies, now, rot faster. The bodycount rises. Time runs down.

In 2014, McConnell was trying to make two more expensive films happen when, for various reasons to do with financing, they fell apart. In trying to come up with a lower-budget, but still heartfelt, story to tell, McDonnell stumbled upon the question: “What if I saw myself in public? Which, of course, is Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy.” That seed, over the course of almost a dozen script revisions, sprouted into Lifechanger, his fifth feature film.

For McConnell, Lifechanger is  more than a  horror film: it’s a meditation on the difficulties of connecting with people. “I wanted to be introspective,” he explains. “A lot of my own past and things I’ve done, or things I wasn’t proud of—not to the degree of Drew in the film—[made it into Lifechanger]. Emotional attachment issues. Jealousy. Things like, you have to learn how to be in a relationship.”

Drew, always coming into people’s lives in medias res, never learned how to do that. As movie monsters go, he’s more a melancholy relic from ‘30s horror than your gleeful ‘80s slasher. In many ways,  he doesn’t think of what he does as killing; he certainly doesn’t understand the way he hurts the people he, in his various guises, eventually leaves behind. “He doesn’t have that perspective,” McConnell agrees. “Everything’s been filtered through multiple life experiences, so his entire psychological makeup is informed by maybe 50 people over the course of 40 or 50 years. He’s already literally schizophrenic, to some degree. He’s really confused.”

But “confusion” is no excuse for the way he treats people, especially Julia, whom he essentially stalks across multiple incarnations. “I was worried, coming into this festival, that somebody would  misinterpret the film and think I’m supporting the stuff it is about,” McConnell says. “Sometimes people make the mistake of believing that every protagonist in a film is also considered to be the hero of the film, and those are two very different things.”

McConnell goes so far as to say that Lifechanger was made, at least in part, to be a critique of “toxic masculinity.”   Drew’s twisted, possessive streak of romanticism towards Julia certainly doesn’t come off  as a positive thing. At one point, Drew transforms into a dental hygienist, Rachel (Rachel VanDuzer)—at least during the time period of this film, he jumps between male and female bodies almost indiscriminately. “When he becomes Rachel,” McDonnell notes, “all of a sudden you can see how clearly Rachel’s being objectified.”

Next up for McConnell is what he  describes as a “more fun, action” sort of film—a far cry from the downbeat, if thoughtful, tragedy that sprouts from horror roots in Lifechanger. Adding an extra bit of depression to the mix, McConnell explains that Lifechanger, which was shot in November and December in the Toronto area, was “influenced by the tone of Christmas, and statistically how suicides and depression are heightened during that season for people who are inclined to that.”

But, as always with indie filmmakers, the budget is never far from one's mind. “You can get a lot of lighting design out of Christmas lights!," McConnell helpfully notes. "With Christmas lights, they’re cheap to buy and Wal-Mart takes them back.”