[Review] 'Shifter' is a Unique, Lo-fi DIY Time Travel Film that Shifts the Focus onto Character Over Snazzy Effects
Theresa (Nicole Fancher) is very much alone...
...A brilliant social outcast stuck at a job she is overqualified for, every time she chances social interaction, all she finds are men wanting to take advantage. Lonely as her life is, Theresa finds solace and purpose in her secret. A secret that defies time and space. A secret that will literally be her undoing.
Written and directed by Jacob Burns, Shifter is a lo-fi piece of DIY time travel unfolding in the unlikeliest of places: the country. Theresa has constructed a time machine in her farm's barn, and when her cat test subject proves a success, she decides her device is ready for human trials. What better human subject than herself? But like most experiments, there are unforeseen consequences and drastic repercussions.
To take a page from Kurt Vonnegut's book, Theresa essentially becomes unstuck in time. Her first trip is harmless, traveling two hours into the past to save herself from a crappy date. The side effects, however, are extreme and develop quickly: pain, vomiting different shades of a strange substance, and no longer having a sense of when she has traveled to. To make matters worse, she no longer needs her device to travel. Instead, her body deteriorates, her atoms rip apart, and she disappears, reappearing in a new time with even worse symptoms.
We're used to time travel stories unfolding within secret hi-tech government labs hidden away from the world. In Shifter, time travel is literally created in a backyard. Theresa’s time machine is assembled from an oil drum with makeshift electronics fastened to it and powered by a several decades old laptop. There are no elaborate security systems or towering metal gates locking the world out from this groundbreaking creation. This speaks to the film's minimal set dressing and scale of its story, ensuring the focus never drifts too far from Theresa. A welcome change of pace from the typical sci-fi setting, this simplicity proves the genre can flourish even in rural roots.
Shifter's narrative is character-focused rather than the usual save-the-world time travel story you'd expect. Theresa's discovery, as groundbreaking as it is, never distracts from her character’s repressed grief. Defined by a dark period in her past, she decides to build a machine that will allow her to go back and resolve her trauma. This angle helps to distract from the noticeably small budget, as our investment is in Theresa herself rather than expecting a litany of time travel special effects. Nicole Fancher gives a terrific leading performance that brings an added emotional weight to every decision she makes. We understand her unwavering determination and, as she progresses farther down the time travel rabbit hole, we want her to find the answers she’s after.
Shifter's effects took a bit to grow on me, but their parallel evolution with Theresa’s condition created an overall enjoyable experience. Initially, they are relatively subtle, but the further Theresa’s condition worsens the more drastic and painful her dematerializing becomes, providing ample opportunity for several entertaining sci-fi horror moments. My favorite shot of the film shows Theresa dematerializing in a movie theater, standing in front of a film projector and screaming in agony as light passes through segments of her body that have disappeared. It's a standout moment in the film that displays both the true intensity of her situation and the seemingly endless brutality inflicted upon her.
Jacob Burns knew he would be limited in just how effects-heavy Shifter could be, so he chose to focus more on utilizing compelling storytelling techniques. Periodically, the viewer leaves Theresa for a brief interlude of a cell-like substance being split and ripped against a dark red backdrop, mirroring the changes happening within her body. These moments do a fantastic job of creating tension and reinforcing that she's running out of time to save herself.
Shifter’s time loop is another of the film’s more engaging narrative moves. Time is a never-ending circle, and eventually Theresa begins seeing copies of herself as she jumps through various points in time. It’s easy for these kinds of films to bog themselves down in needless jargon but Burns prefers to show viewers how time travel works in his film rather than attempting to explain every parameter. At a brisk 85 minutes, it succeeds where many outstay their welcome.
Shifter clicked for me in a way that I didn't expect. It's a breakneck piece of rural sci-fi that succeeds in telling a dark story of the intersection between technology and personal anguish. The film’s rough edges and initially underwhelming effects are easy to forgive thanks to its defining uniqueness and the quality of its narrative.
Shifter comes to VOD and On-Demand from the Horror Collective August 6th. You can pre-order the film through iTunes here.
By Jay Krieger