Time travel stories in the horror genre are the modern-day equivalent of Greek tragedies where a character flaw causes a person to defy the natural order of the cosmos and suffer for it. We’ve seen plenty of examples of the emotional and mind-bending terrors chrononauts must endure, but what about the physical costs of defying quantum physics? Can time travel hurt you physically? In his new film, Shifter, writer/director Jacob Leighton Burns makes a strong case that it can with a heartfelt, tragic tale that mixes the mind bending twists of time travel with body horror. The result is an emotional gut-punch of film that doesn’t have the same amount of gore (It still has some) but is a sort of a spiritual cousin to David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
The time-shifter at the center of Shifter is a woman named Theresa Chaney (Nicole Fancher) who’s haunted by the memories of her time caring for ill and now deceased father. In his final days he suffered from dementia, which causes her to worry about her becoming a burden on other people. She’s also a genius trapped in a town that’s emotionally toxic to her. So, she decides to build a time travel device. Why? Because she can. The film opens with Theresa conducting a successful test on her adorable cat. We then get to see her desperately try and connect with a number of different people.
“[…] a painful and poignant journey through space and time that is both harrowing and cathartic to watch.”
Nicole Fancher does a fantastic job of making you root for Theresa and understanding just how wrong the town and the dead-end job she’s trapped in are for her. You Cheer her on when she eventually decides to use her machine to get a bit of payback for a disastrous date. You feel happy for her that she was successful at her big technological endeavor and that she was finally able to win a small victory over the cruel inhabitants of her town.
Then something unexpected happens and you realize what a big mistake Theresa has made. I don’t want to get too much into what happens for fear of spoilers, but by experimenting on herself Theresa becomes trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of intense physical pain. The sound design with its ominous snaps and pops really deliver that pain. Plus, there are some haunting scenes near the end of the film where you start to see the toll Theresa’s repeated temporal episodes have been taking on her body. Theresa isn’t the only one experiencing these effects either. As I mentioned earlier, her machine’s first test subject was her cat, and the cat also suffers from temporal episodes. So, if you’re a feline lover (as I am) Shifter might be especially hard to watch. I can say though that the scenes with the cat are not excessive and add to the horror of what Theresa is experiencing.
Shifter is a time travel movie, which means it rewards careful watching. A seemingly innocuous conversation at the beginning of the movie pays off later on, and the film revisits several scenes from different perspectives in ways that enhance them all. If you’re a fan of the perception bending twists that have become common in time travel films there’s a quite a bit to love here. The film has some real physical stakes, but it has emotional ones as well. They come courtesy of Blake Douglass (Ashley Mandanas) a library employee Theresa has a meet-cute with when she’s picking up some books on quantum physics. Fancher and Mandanas have great chemistry together. I shipped them together from their very first scene.
Ultimately, Shifter is more about playing with your emotions than your mind. Because this is the story of a brilliant woman who instead of dealing with her emotional issues head-on decides to escape them by using her intellect to defy the laws of the known universe. In doing so, she embarks upon a painful and poignant journey through space and time that is both harrowing and cathartic to watch.
Shifter, presented by The Horror Collective, is available now on VOD and On Demand. Let us know what you thought of the films over on on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!