Monday 29 October 2012

Toronto After Dark: In Their Skin

I had this roommate who was paranoid about home invasion. I used to tease him.

"If someone really wants in, that crummy deadbolt won't stop him."

He didn't like that.

And I once dated a guy whose family kept a hatchet by the front door. But it wasn't in case of home invasion--they just really hated the Prime Minister and it was in case he ever came calling.

Personally, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about home invasion, and movies like The Strangers don't really freak me out. Maybe it's because I grew up in a place where that kind of thing never happens, and I live in a place where it's unlikely to ever occur. Or maybe 'cause the first home invasion movie I ever saw was The Ref. My relative disengagement from home invasion movies doesn't stop me from appreciating them, and I thought the home invasion thriller In Their Skin was pretty good.

In an effort to begin the healing process after the tragic death of their young daughter, the Hughes family is spending some time at their country home. Early one morning, the family is awakened by their neighbours, and the annoying encounter leads to an awkward dinner party in which the two families get to know each other. Dinner comes to an abrupt end, and the Hughes are keen to put the day behind them, but the neighbours' reappearance leads a long night of terror.

In Their Skin, explains director Jeremy Regimbal, was originally titled Replicas, but it was thought to be much too science-fictiony. The idea was to capture the film's premise, the idea of one family taking the place of another, usurping them. Bobby and Jane Sikorsky want the perfect life and they believe Mark and Mary Hughes are living the dream, so they invade their space with the end goal of replacing them. The new title, In Their Skin, was one of about ten possible alternatives to Replicas, and likely the right choice because it speaks to the film's more subtle manipulations.

Bobby and Jane's MO is to invade the home of their targets and learn their attitudes and behaviours before taking on their names. The terribly awkward dinner party the Hughes host, is just a preface to the Sikorsky's take over, but it gives Bobby and Jane a chance to watch and copy Mark and Mary. At first the mimicking is  inconspicuous, but it becomes more obvious as the night wears on, to the point where Bobby even borrows a shirt from Mark. But as the evening progresses, the Hughes grow increasingly put off by their guests--the Sikorskys can't keep up their charade for very long and they periodically break character, eventually tearing down their own facade and revealing their true intentions.

It's at this point the film splits off from itself. A wonderfully surreal sequence, beautifully created to mimic a normal night in a normal house, gives way to what's easily the worst moment in the script. Weirdly, a movie with a similar premise suffers the same problem. In A Perfect Getaway, one couple is stalked by another couple who steals people's identities. It's revealed late in the story the killers are tweekers, meth-addicted psychos who prey on holiday-makers. Thing is, there's simply no way these two meth heads could possess the capacity to execute such a sophisticated plan. (Also, their teeth are too nice.) Plausibility goes right out the window the moment the villains do or say something that undercuts or negates everything else they've said and done. In In Their Skin, Bobby tells Mark he's been waiting for him, suggesting that he's been stalking him for some months now. Not only is it unlikely that Bobby has the capacity to research the Hughes family, but the late-coming revelation is completely unnecessary.

Further complicating the matter is the Hughes' dead daughter. Before Bobby's confession, her death is point of conflict and sorrow for the characters but doesn't really add anything to the story. After Bobby's speech, the dead girl is both a contrivance and an exploitation--she gives the Sikorskys a reason for choosing the Hughes while at the same time providing the film with an opportunity to exploit its characters' grief. But home invasion movies don't need to explain themselves, that's what's supposed to make them so terrifying. Moreover, because these movies focus on the experiences of the victims, the villains' motives should be inconsequential.

That having been said, the film is still creepy. The Sikorskys' awkwardness is disturbing, the Hughes' suffering horrifying. You know it's good when the audience cheers, and that happened here. They also jumped and yelled. I'm still not completely sold on home invasion plots, but this is definitely among the best films of this nature that I've seen.

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