Screens at CIFF: 10/17 & 10/20
World premiere: 21 April, 2012, Tribeca Film Festival

If you had asked me, in the late 1990s, if I had ever expected to feel sorry for Selma Blair, I would literally not have understood what you meant. So for that, I owe In Their Skin (which has previously done time on the festival circuit as Replicas) thanks: it has taught me that no-one is so untalented and disposable that they are beyond sympathy. For, my dear hypothetical interlocutor of 1999, I do feel sorry for Selma Blair. Nobody who spent any time enjoying mainstream success should have to end up in a project like this one, headlining an unnaturally clumsy horror-thriller that, maybe, heard once that there was a thing called human behavior; maybe even spent some time observing humans from a great distance, trying to figure out what that behavior looks like in the wild. But it does not, itself, rise to the level of human behavior - even by the standards of horror, a debased cinematic genre that has produced not only Friday the 13th, but also the remake of Friday the 13th, and other such docudrama-like explorations of adolescent sexual psychology.

The film - a Canadian production, and thus doubly galling, since one grows used to thinking that Canadian genre films are inherently better than their U.S. counterparts - tells the story of a very bad vacation: the Hughes, Mary (Blair) and Mark (Joshua Close, the film's screenwriter), and their tween son Brendon (Quinn Lord), are making the annual trek to the family's grand old house in the woods, and this year is very sad because for the first time, they are going without Brendon's sister, who died in an accident earlier in the year. We learn this during a conversation with a kindly old owner of a Last Gas Station In Civilization (Terence Kelly), who recalls in dialogue that feels like it was being written on the spot and communicated to the actors via dry-erase boards held just off-camera, that he remembers her being a perfect little angel. And so on, and so forth.

Mary and Mark are going through a rough patch, as happens when a child dies tragically; this trip certainly isn't helping matters, and it frequently seems like they're on the verge of divorcing right then and there, particularly when Mark invites over a local family for lunch with Mary's okay: husband Bob (James D'Arcy) and wife Jane (Rachel Milner), and shockingly big for his age son Jared (Alex Ferris). Other than the faux pas of inviting them over on the spur of the moment - moreover, at the spur of the moment at the very crack of dawn, since the family showed up to surprise the Hughes with firewood at sun-up, not observing that this would probably come off creepy rather than neighborly - there's no reason for Mary or Mark to think anything bad will happen, but we know something they don't: that the movie opened with a man running through the night, being caught by an unseen figure who proceeds to beat him to death (followed by a cut to a strip of black leader that lasts for what feels like half a minute, just waiting for the movie to resume).

Haha, no, there's every reason for them to be suspicious, because the family (their name is Polish and begins with an "S", but I am afraid that I did not write it down in time to remember it) is a cartoon depiction of movie psychopaths, starting with their absurdly twitchy morning log run, and continuing at the most awkward, embarrassing lunch ever, in which neither Bob nor Jane can string together five words that aren't hellaciously creepy, while Jared just stares, hungrily, at Brendon. Obviously, what is supposed to be going on is that the neighbors are "off" but in some undefinable way that might be explained by their social isolation; but neither the clamorous dialogue nor the over-the-top performances sell that. Rather, they're selling the idea that these people want awfully bad to wear the Hughes' flesh like pajamas, and the fact that nobody - the openly hostile Mary especially - hasn't ordered them out of the house within five minutes and driven to the nearest police station doesn't establish a nightmare scenario for our protagonists to survive, it makes them look like stupid movie characters who stay in a plainly dangerous situation in order that there should be a plot. Meanwhile, the Exposition Limited continues to scrape out of the station, with scene after scene of dialogue which could not be more baldly functional if the characters said to one another, "I'm telling you this so you understand the dynamic of the strained marriage you and I share, now that our dead daughter - did I mention our dead daughter? - is dead".

Criminally bad screenwriting and a hackneyed scenario being what they are (and hackneyed it surely is: down to several specifics - the Last Gas Station, the quietly strained marriage with a helpless idiot husband, the dog that is the first to die, the family of freaks - this is just The Woods Have Eyes), the movie has only up to go, and it does so once the neighbors give up pretending that they're sane, and In Their Skin turns into a by-the-numbers home invasion thriller, with Bob and Mary and Jared wanting to add Mark and Mary and Brendon to the catalogue of identities that they've stolen over the years by means of killing those identities' present owners, it actually improves; for if by-the-numbers filmmaking is never, ever interesting, it is also, by and large, functional - this is, in fact, why it gets to be so blankly standardised. So at least In Their Skin ends up being an emptily competent thriller, which is far more than the excruciating failed exposition of the opening sequence can say. By this point, any hope of empathising with the Hughes is out the window - that is the chief reason it's so important for horror characters not to seem like imbeciles - but I will say this, I certainly was rooting for them to succeed in killing their attackers, because as annoying as the nominal heroes are, the villains, done up in comically overwrought voices and physical behavior, are worse.

This is something that should maybe be left unsaid, but I can't help myself: in the 11 years that I've been attending the Chicago Interional Film Festival, dear reader, I honestly think this might be the worst film I've seen.