A quiet, measured little picture which fuses the headscratching time-puzzle business of, say, Primer with a 2020 gloss on Cronenbergian body horror – using effects techniques available even to ultra low-budget films which were unimaginable back in the pulsing rubber days of Videodrome and The Fly. In its emphasis on the physical effects of using a time machine (aka ‘the device’, made of bolted together rusty iron drums and computer parts), Shifter picks up on a tiny strain of s-f cinema which includes odd items like Secret of the Telegian, The H-Man and The Projected Man … but it doesn’t go the monster on a rampage route and instead focuses on character study.
Theresa (Nicole Fancher), a savant of some sort who has missed out on further education by caring for a now-deceased father during his terminal illness, only shows much emotional range when cooing over her cat (cats seldom fare well in laboratory-set science fiction films) and is blankly difficult to deal with at her low-skill job or in very low-wattage dating experiments. Having constructed the contraption, she uses it in a minor way – prompted by a moebius loop she recognises even before time travel-savvy audiences do – to arrange that a date with a fast-talking high school acquaintance (he calls her ‘a towering inferno’, because she’s ‘tall and hot’) plays out as it did first time round, by bumping into the guy when he nips out to take a ‘work call’ so that his wedding ring falls on the floor. However, this and subsequent uses of the device wreak a singular, gruesome toll on her body as she has periodic bouts of nausea, exhibits radiation sickness-type symptoms and sometimes has chunks and fissures appear in her reality.
In one sequence, Theresa is struck by the effect at a cinema and the projector beam shines through her partially-phased body so her shell – which looks a little like Dr Manhattan in his pre-coherence form – casts a shadow on Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. There are plot threads, mostly to do with the few people who intersect with Theresa’s life, but writer-director Jacob Leighton Burns stays with this shunted-aside-in-time iteration of the protagonist – Fancher is very good as an inexpressive character in an extreme situation – with the possibility that there are other incarnations having a better time as she loops in and out of her own timeline.