'Replace' Review: Icky Body Horror And A Great Lead Performance [Fantasia Film Festival]

What's intriguing about Norbert Keil's Replace isn't just the Richard Stanley co-writing credit. It's more than the "Barbara Crampton Effect." Sinful style hypnotizes like a tractor beam that entraps voyeuristic eyes, like someone spliced the cinematic DNA of Nicolas Winding Refn and Vincenzo Natali. Vanity becomes an obsession that leads to sci-fi experimentation, not to downplay the Cronenbergian body horror elements at play. Music pulsates, skin is flayed, beautification is achieved through vile means. Yes, motivations stink of The Neon Demon. But there's more than shallow LA scuzziness here, evocative of man's inherent fear of deteriorating with age.

Rebecca Forsythe stars as Kira Mabon, a superficial young woman who dreams of never growing old. Her comments are often shrugged off by friends like Sophia (Lucie Aron) because Kira's supple skin softly glows – as far as they can see. Dry spots begin to overtake Kira's body, spreading without respite. She contacts Dr. Rafaela Crober (Barbara Crampton), who she's visited before but can't recall why (blame the short-term memory loss she's suffering). It'll be days until Dr. Crober can act on lab results, leaving Kira with no relief. Removing the skin just reveals a bloody underlayer, but at least torn patches adhere back immediately. Then Kira gets an idea. If dead skin binds back, what about living skin? Someone else's, that isn't drying or scabbing.

Replace can feel like multiple films when evaluated scene by scene, from neon-soaked club attacks to smoldering romantic exchanges. Kira, frustrated by her flaky covering, picks and peels away with stomach-churning regard – only to be framed as a sexual muse moments later. Keil's vision blisters with European sensuality, striking an artistic balance with haunting eroticism and pornographic sleaze. Such is a journey that navigates self-serving cosmetic obsessions and the horrors of slice-and-dice culture. Something that, say, and American director might handle with less blushing brushstrokes.

Cinematographer Tim Peter Kuhn wields a seductive lens, radiating heat that bounces off hyper-detailed locales. Take Dr. Croger's office, colored with a sterile white coating and accented by circular red ceiling lights (almost like an art installation). The way Kuhn slowly twirls his camera unravels Kira as she walks down a metallic corridor towards her illuminated exit point. A Eurotrash nightclub is drenched in purple hues, tinting rhinestone spandex and sexy model-types while horrific actions are given a DJ's fist-pumping energy (seriously, this isn't The Neon Demon). Moral of the story? Kuhn and Keil unite to tell a pitch-black story with visual bedazzlement, and succeed (especially once Dr. Crober's very 2001: A Space Odyssey themed lab flickers a purified spotlight).

Keil's ability to juggle countless tones is impressive, but not without a few near-drops. Shots of Kira slashing her way to perfect skin pitch genre high notes, while her bubbly relationship with Sophia sometimes fizzles too low (like an exquisite glass of champagne that's gone flat). Plotting suggests something may be amiss between the two, which minimizes shock value. It's the duality of it all – a happy Kira with someone she loves, versus her monstrous, essence-stealing self. Then Dr. Crober reveals her genetic mad scientist routine (never in doubt), and final motivations push into a kill-happy turn with surprising acceptance. How quickly one becomes a mercenary when pushed to the edge. No remorse, no regret...no experience?

In one single performance, Rebecca Forsythe is asked to develop multiple arcs. First with a Memento-like dive through clouded memories, then her criminal bloodletting andan eventual revenge outburst – Kira is one complicated woman. Forsythe accepts the challenge of changing with the performance winds, never shying away from the beast within. Learning to kill, wrestling with abandonment, accepting regret and acknowledging past choices. The way she gently caresses her victim's bosom before cutting in and peeling back flesh begs the most unsettling attention. "If looks could kill" becomes Forsythe's unsaid mantra, and she lives up to the task on multiple levels.

Helicopter friendship by Lucie Aron threatens the amoral medication plan Kira abuses (murder), ratcheting tension over glasses of wine or dinner parties. Aron twirls her dress and charms with a smile, but as previously stated, sometimes her listless romanticism is a harder sell amidst death and mystery. Barbara Crampton is the steadier supporting actress, wearing her facade with a devilish grin. A cold, research-driven physician whose work is prioritized ahead of patients, almost ghoulish given her golden bangs and powdery complexion. Is there anyone better at selling a dead stare? Beyond The Gates and now Replace? Her presence is an undeniable benefit, even though Dr. Crober treads around in ugly-ass Crocs.

Replace is a beast of many shapes. One unmasks our constant attempts to dodge inevitability, another denounces social norms around our fashion-first culture, a last goes for gross-out chills. Delicate effects turn radiant skin into crackled, crusty planes, while bodies are mutilated with surgical precision. Who is to blame for all this? Norbert Keil and his intoxicating-yet-invasive grasp. Rebecca Forsythe and her Fountain of Youth fantasy. Musical variation (Giallo influences spike orchestral chills), lusty lensing, style that suggests a dance party in Lucifer's basement. Hiccups in story exist, but they're handled by a vision that twirls Keil's kaleidoscope of searing imagery. This is one societal underbelly watch with a whole lot to show and tell.Rating: 7.5/10