An unnerving home-invasion thriller, “In Their Skin” has narrative bones we’ve certainly seen before, bearing perhaps the closest resemblance to Michael Haneke’s two versions of “Funny Games.” Nonetheless, the same simple premise achieves full creepy impact here without succumbing to cheap genre thrills or cool arthouse abstraction. While Jeremy Power Regimbal’s assured directorial debut is unlikely to make a big splash theatrically, the recently retitled pic, which toured festivals earlier this year as “Replicas,” should attract enough favorable notice to do well in home-format sales in various markets.
A brief prologue shows the Hughes family in crisis, sitting in a hospital corridor awaiting the bad news about its youngest member. Six months later, mom Mary (Selma Blair) remains sunk in the depression triggered by her daughter’s accidental death, while dad Mark (Josh Close, who scripted) has responded by burying himself in work. Their marriage is on thin ice, so together with their resilient 8-year-old son, Brendon (Quinn Lord), they get a head start on the usual summer season, heading to their longtime woodland vacation home for some rest, relaxation and self-repair.
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Very early the next morning, however, their rest is interrupted by intruders in their backyard — new neighbors, or so the “Zachowskis” claim. Pushy Bobby (James D’Arcy) and his weirdly childlike spouse, Jane (Rachel Miner), have a son, Jared (Alex Ferris), who’s supposedly Brendon’s age, though he looks several years older. They’ve made the odd decision to welcome the Hugheses with a gift of firewood, an awkward first meeting that ends with the Zachowskis essentially inviting themselves over again that afternoon.
All goes well enough at first, though the guests ask too many questions of their hosts in a curiously covetous way that Mary, for one, soon finds inappropriate and invasive. Tensions rapidly escalate when the two boys run tearfully downstairs from a confrontation in Brendon’s bedroom, each tattling a different tale, though it’s Brendon who bears physical evidence of attack. The evening ends on an abrupt note as the Zachowskis are thrown out — but they won’t wait until morning to pay their neighbors another, much more bluntly threatening visit.
What rapidly turns into a hostage situation is lent an extra chill by the suggestion that the intruders have done this before, and indeed might serially target enviable families to assume their property and identities; it’s pointed out that Mary and Mark are in prime yuppie professions (real-estate developer and lawyer, respectively). While “In Their Skin” has no overt political agenda, it’s worth noting how these elements and the overall psychological suspense echo current paranoid conservative fantasies of the have-nots forcibly seizing from the haves, simply because they resent and covet it.
Close’s judicious script provides for a long, ominous buildup that Regimbal milks with crafty restraint. When things go from uncomfortable to far worse, the pic still refrains from horror/action hyperbole, emphasizing the emotions of the entrapped over violence, despite a fair amount of mayhem.
Strong perfs all around are supported by the pic’s formal precision in other departments, with a chilly, wintry look to Norm Li’s lensing, subtly effective design contributions and sparse use of Keith Power’s original score.