Kira's skin starts to age rapidly, dry out and crumble away. But then she discovers that she can replace her own skin with somebody else's.
God help me. Upon finishing a screening of Replace – which had its US Premiere at this year’s LA Film Fest – my husband and I both thought the same thing (shared brain, don’t you know): the terrible jingle for the Safe-lite commercials. You know the ones – “Safe-lite repair, Safe-lite replace.” Since Replace centers on that all-important organ – skin – we redid the jingle to say, “New skin repair, new skin replace.”
And that dumb little anecdote isn’t meant to belittle the power of the film – in fact, how many horror films have inspired a quick rewording to a catchy (if annoying) commercial jingle?
I’ll tell you – none. So the film should wear it as a badge of honor, right?
Part art-house (in the vein of The Neon Demon), part Cronenberg body-horror, part sci-fi with a futuristic Westworld vibe – the forthcoming genre mash-up Replace is a film to eagerly anticipate.
I’ll tell ya… it’s been a rough few weeks (heck, months) of not-so-great films in my reviewing queue, so to have something as fascinating and yes, hypnotic as Replace – well, I’ll take a quick moment to thank the movie Gods, and figure out an appropriate sacrifice to keep this quality coming.
And as an added bonus to supplement my experience with Replace, I had the chance to sit down and chat with stars Rebecca Forsythe and Barbara Crampton as well as writer/director Norbert Keil while at LA Film Fest. Thanks to Jim Dobson for the hook-up!
Here’s the lowdown:
Kira (Executive Producer Rebecca Forsythe – daughter of legendary character actor William Forsythe) is a beautiful young musician – seemingly living a rewarding urban existence in a large metropolitan area. She lives in a fantastic loft apartment and develops a deep friendship with her next-door neighbor Sophia (Lucie Aron). But within this idealistic life, she begins having strange flashbacks, potential hallucinations and most of all – she’s developed a strange skin condition over much of her body. Her skin is aging, crusting over and flaking away. She enlists the help of scientist Dr. Crober (horror icon Barbara Crampton) – to help find a solution to the problem. But as more and more tests are run and things are still inconclusive, Kira realizes that if she takes the fresh skin from other people, and applies it to her own degrading flesh, it’ll offer short-term relief. The film follows her violent and frightening descent into what amounts to a sort of flesh addiction.
With that, I was reminded of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. While Julia (Clare Higgins) killed her victims in the name of love/lust – to bring back the skin of her lover, Kira’s sick need to replace her skin with that of her victims – is in service to something far shallower, but no less powerful. It’s vanity.
And in this call-out of vanity at any cost – Replace takes on a deeper societal issue. And let’s face it, some of the best horror holds up a mirror to ourselves and forces us to look at who we are and what we’ve become. I asked both Forsythe and Crampton if the tackling of this issue in the script was something which helped to bring them on board.
REBECCA FORSYTHE: “You don’t really get these kinds of scripts when you’re just starting off as an actor. And so I wanted to do it immediately. I was so drawn to it because it was this big question for society – not just very present here in LA but all over the world. It’s a universal, basic human fear of ‘how is aging going to affect us?’”
I followed up by asking if it spoke to them [Crampton and Forsythe] more as females – because of the additional ridiculous pressure they face because of their sex.
RF: “Yes. There’s this insane pressure and it starts very young. I’m already feeling pressure, ‘You’re getting a little old now’. It’s ridiculous. It’s very ridiculous.”
Barbara Crampton: “I think there was a point in my late 30s where I just wasn’t working any more. And I think women’s roles dried up – just not a lot of roles for women in their late 30s. They want the younger women, the more beautiful women. Film is a visual medium. We want beautiful people on camera. And we do have that pressure on us. I’ve kind of crossed over the hump now. I’m in the back 40. So it doesn’t really matter anymore what I look like. But it is an eternal question. Beauty is an eternal question.”
And while issues of body image are obviously problems for all sexes – Keil, Forsythe and Crampton agreed – the film wouldn’t have been as powerful had the lead been male.
And let’s be frank. In horror, things are generally better with a female lead. Societal majorities or not, as Brian DePalma once said, “Women are more sympathetic creatures in jeopardy, plus they’re more interesting to photograph.”
And per Keil, the original inspiration for the film came directly from his own experience with vanity and his very real fear of getting older.
Norbert Keil: “It originated with an operation I had – my back gave out. I had two ruptured discs. And that confronted me with the decay of my own body and with my total inability to do anything about it. Anything – total helplessness. And going into the operation, that helplessness – that feeling. I will always remember that — just a terrible place to be. I always had a problem with getting older – I’m not a fan of it… I set out to make a movie about the fear of decay of your own body.”
Performances are key to Replace. Without the powerful emotions brought to the forefront by Forsythe and Crampton – as well as their co-star Lucie Aron – all of the beautiful technical achievements (i.e. everything) would have been for not. These are characters we can identify with and the performances will easily engage your sympathies.
Forsythe is incredibly vulnerable in her role as Kira. She’s often-times confused about what’s happening and sickened by what she must do. So Forsythe gets to play practically ever emotion as Kira. And there are more things I’d love to discuss – were it not for the spectre of spoilers.
And taking the plunge into ultimate nakedness (and not only of the character’s soul) – Forsythe is nude for much of the film. Of course, it’s inherent to the story – which is about skin. And Kira’s condition isn’t just on her forearms or her thighs. It’s all over the place. So I was curious as to how this nudity requirement weighed on Forsythe.
RF: “We talked a ton – we went frame by frame. And Norbert was very specific about what needed to be shown, because it is a movie about skin. It’s all done in good taste. It’s not just like, ‘You’re just gonna have your top off because we feel like it.’ So that’s why I was fine to do it. And our first day of shooting was actually… I had to be nude. [laughs] ‘Hi sound guy!’ After that, everybody was so great and I became so close with everyone. By the end it really… I mean, there was still… I’m only human. I was as comfortable as I could possibly be. It’s part of a performance. It’s part of the work.”
Crampton added: “I’ve been there. You can’t play it ‘Oh my God, I’m naked right now.’ You have to play the truth of what you’re going through. And you just happen to be naked. You’re focusing on what you’re doing.”
As for Crampton’s performance (she interviewed scientists at The Buck Institute for the Research of Aging to prepare for the role) what would you expect other than her perpetual brilliance? She’s a pro. She’s a veteran. I can’t say too much, but you’ll see a side to Crampton which may be new to you… and it’s oh-so good.
BC: “I was interested to play someone in control – to play a doctor. To play a strong character that was originally written for a man. And then they said, ‘Why don’t we get Barbara Crampton to do it?’ So that was flattering to me. People were talking about me and saying, ‘She can play this role. Let it be a female.’ So that weight was on me.”
And indeed, like the tales of an Alien yesteryear – that Ripley was originally a male character – in Replace, it simply doesn’t make sense to have a male play Dr. Crober. There’s so much extra goodness and subtext and depth and baggage by having a woman inhabit the role. The film is so steeped in the female experience – it would have been a sin (and would have completely changed the film’s dynamic) had Crober been played by a man. Such a good call by the filmmakers – and to give the role to the pro that is Crampton – genius.
There is a big reveal in the film (don’t worry – no spoilers here) and you’ll get some good clues as to what’s coming. Thankfully, it’s not a twist which comes out of nowhere – plenty of groundwork is laid to allow it to organically happen. Note to other filmmakers – by not calling too much attention to foreshadowed details – you too can have a big reveal that actually works!
Ms. Crampton commented on the twist, after her original read of the script.
BC: “I didn’t know what the twist was, and it floored me. It completely floored me. I had no idea when I read it and then it was revealed and I went, ‘Holy shit! This is fantastic!’”
I was very taken by the film’s set design and set dressing. Kira’s apartment is an urban-dweller’s dream (other than the very non-private bathroom). But beyond that, the attention to detail is striking. There’s so much going on (without being overwhelming) and it offers a lovely history of the life Kira has led. On the flipside – the futuristic and cold vastness of Dr. Crober’s medical facility – will leave you impressed with its visual beauty, but that uncomfortable gut feeling of being ever so lost and uncertain. Replace is blessed with a marvelous-looking production.
I asked the actors how much of a difference a solid set design and these aforementioned intricate details help them along in their performance.
BC: “The level of attention to detail by Norbert and the production team… and the makeup and the wardrobe and our DP and everybody working together to have a certain look and to have a certain feel. It feels dreamy. It feels strange and other-worldly – for a lot of the reasons that will make sense after the movie. Everything works together in concert. So frequently I’ll do a movie and there’s not as much thought put into the visuals as in this movie, which I thought was stunning.
HFN: “And it makes a difference in your performance because you’re completely engaged.”
BC: “I was so excited when they were building the operating room. And I came out and they were trying to figure out how to build it – and it was like an ongoing thing. And I walked into the soundstage and there were black curtains everywhere. And then I saw the lights. It was partially built – the lights for the walls. And I went, ‘Oh my God. I can’t wait to be in here!’ It really informs your character and your place. That’s one of the things you learn in acting 101 – where are you in the place? You act differently at home than you do when you’re in a restaurant – or you go to the doctor’s office or wherever. It really helps so much.”
RF: “It’s not like a green-screen. You feel it. It gives me everything.”
And Keil confirmed that there was no CG in these clinic sequences. Take my word for it, you’ll be impressed – even more-so knowing that the actors actually inhabited these spaces. And with this cold and sterile medical facility, I was pleasantly reminded of Michael Crichton’s Coma.
There’s a marked shift at somewhere around the half-point of the film. It’s rare that a tonal change of this type will work without losing the audience. Whenever I think of a successful shift in tone during a film – I think of only one true success – Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Well, I guess I have as second example now…
Keil speaks to my call-out of this tonal change: “What you feel there, is we created two worlds for the film. We created the old world which is Kira’s apartment – the hospital, the drug store, the streets, the buildings. All very gritty, very desolate, almost derelict. And then there’s Dr. Crober’s world, which is really new and very shiny. My DP approached the lighting differently. We used different filters in the two sets – the two worlds that we created. And I think that’s what you feel. We were very focused on the emotional journey. Every day, every minute, every second, every shot. So that’s your lifeline through the movie. That guides you from one world to the other.”
And indeed, the continuation in both worlds – of Kira’s plight – is the key to the success of the film’s tonal shift. Nicely done!
A fun bit of trivia – Replace was co-written by Richard Stanley, screenwriter behind such films as Hardware and the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Well, folks… the year’s only half over, but I’ll say that Replace stands a more than decent chance of ending up on my “Best of 2017” year-end list.
With sheer strength in every aspect of Replace (the tackling of a universal fear, the glorious production design and fantastic performances), it’s not something you’ll want to miss.
Again, the showing at the LA Film Fest was the US Premiere – so at press, no wider release information is available.
But mark it down on your notebooks to keep an eye out – or burn a message into your skin (wait, don’t do that, your skin’s too precious) – but somehow make it a priority to see this when the opportunity arises. We need to make the most of our movie-watching moments. So why not watch something good?
After all, we’re not getting any younger.