Tag Archives: Dreams

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STRAWBERRY MANSION (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips

PLOT: In the future, dreams are taxed, and when a dream auditor goes to check in on an elderly woman who’s off the grid, he finds himself drawn to dreams that are more free than his own.

Still from Strawberry Mansion (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: With themes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a handmade aesthetic straight from The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion is the 2020s American indie version of a turn-of-the-millennium Michel Gondry movie. It may be a tribute, but it’s a worthy trip of its own.

COMMENTS: Dream movies are tricky, and making a dream movie on a low budget is even trickier. Strawberry Mansion addresses these limitations up front. The introductory dream is minimalist: an everyday kitchen, but painted entirely pink, into which comes a friendly visitor bearing a bucket of fried chicken. Throughout the movie, dreams will be conveyed using these types of simple props and sets thrown together in incongruous ways: actors dressed as Halloween-costume frogs (playing saxophones) or mice (in sailor suits); walking shrubs; demons with turquoise light-bulb eyes. Add in the occasional stop-motion animated skeleton or caterpillar to go along with some simple green screen, and you’ve proven that you can convey an otherwordly feel without millions of dollars of CGI.

The second scene addresses the non-budgetary conundrum dream movies face: the cliché of slippage between the waking world and the dream world, and the idea that the audience must be on guard to discriminate between the two. Our hero (a bureaucrat with the Brazil-ish name “Preble”) awakes to find himself craving chicken, and goes to Cap’n Kelly’s drive-thru, where the A.I. clerk tries to sell him a brand new “Chicken Shake.” Chowing down in the parking lot, he has a brief flash-forward hallucination—and that’s it, as far as the old “blurring the lines between dream and reality” bit goes. There is no “real’ world in Strawberry Mansion to confuse with the dream world. The premise of this near-future vision isn’t dystopian science fiction, but light absurdist satire. The very idea of taxes on dreams—dream of a buffalo, and you’re assessed a twenty-five cent bill; dandelions are three cents apiece—is something that would only occur to you in a dream. There’s no narrative confusion about whether we’re in the characters’ dreams or the movie’s reality, and there’s also never any sense that we’re meant to take this cinematic world as more than a dream itself. This dream-inside-a-dream structure frees us up to experience the movie on its own terms, instead of falling into the psychological thriller trap of trying to distinguish what is a dream from what is “really happening.”

As Preble, Audley is rather bland as a slouchy, glum bureaucrat, but that’s by design; his character contrasts with the grandiose poetry of dreams, which go beyond workaday realities. Penny Fuller‘s eccentric Arabella—when he asks her what she does during the intake interview, she describes herself as an “atmosphere creator,” so he jots down “artist” on his form’s “occupation” line—is the sweet but slightly ridiculous woman who will seduce him into a more fulfilling mode of being human. Strawberry Mansion is a manifesto for resisting the numbing effects of modern technology—represented explicitly by advertising—in favor of the playful freedom of imagination. This message is wrapped in a sugary confection about a man and a woman who have a deep but chaste romance based on shared dreams rather than the passions of the physical world. It’s funny, gentle, and filled with funny, gentle dreams to tickle your imagination. It may be the best dream you’ll have this year, and it’s well worth the bill.

Kentucker Audley is best known as an actor in indie circles, but he also founded the website NoBudge, which curates low-budget (and often weird) short films from up-and-coming directors. Audley and co-writer/co-director Albert Birney previously collaborated on the absurdist comedy Silvio (2017), about a gorilla news anchor going through an existential crisis. Strawberry Mansion is inexplicably named after a Philadelphia neighborhood. It debuted at Sundance and already has a distributor (Music Box), so expect to see it available to the general public later this year, by early 2022 by the very latest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many will surely find the metaphysical derring-do and aggressive weirdness of Strawberry Mansion too much of an ask, but for those prepared to dive down its nutso rabbit-hole, it offers a divertingly free-wheeling vision.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SUPER ME (2019)

Qi Huan Zhi Lv

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DIRECTED BY: Zhang Chong

FEATURING: Talu Wang, Bingkun Cao, Jia Song, Shih-Chieh King

PLOT: Sang Yu, a screenwriter at the end of his tether, finds he can swipe high-value artifacts from his nightmares to sell in the real world.

COMMENTS: Oh, unreliable narrator, how you revel in tales of dreams and dreams within them. Oh, Chinese cinema, how quickly you catch up to the West. Oh, Mark 8:36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” And, oh, there are yet more questions to pose concerning Super Me, but for the time being, I will table the niggling unanswerables. The most surprising thing about Zhang Chong’s dream-thriller (rated TV-14 for, among other reasons, “fear”) is that its double twist undercut my predictions. The least surprising thing about it was that once our hero shaved his dorky facial hair, he became rather handsome and self-assured.

Sang hasn’t slept in half a year, or so he tells us. This obviously cannot be true. But as we suspended our disbelief for Fight Club, so let us extend that courtesy to Super Me. Sang is harried by San, to whom he owes a screenplay. This movie is about a screenwriter, one who pines for humble café owner (and possibly ex-nightclub singer; the flashback is thorough but not entirely clear), Hua’er. Sang runs out of cash, has his laptop stolen, is kicked out of his apartment, and is about to jump from a roof when he’s talked down by the kindly pancake vendor on the sidewalk below. This mystical philosopher advises the worn-out young man that in life, people always talk about death—to remind themselves they are still alive. During his nightly nightmares (in which he’s being murdered by some otherworldly blue goon), Sang should just declare, “I’m dreaming” to break the spell. Taking this sage advice, the next thing we know, he awakes with the goon’s impossibly valuable sword in hand. Pawn shop, money bags, big living, and lucid dreaming ensue.

Chong’s film is peopled with run-of-the-mill characters and the third act’s tone shift doesn’t quite gel—its sudden menace kneecaps the arc of wish fulfillment/cutesy romance an hour into the proceedings. I liked the menace; it was well executed, with unlikely but believable gangsters. Having derailed the fun and breezy tone that had dominated (post-suicide attempt, of course), Chong undercut what could have made his story even rarer: the feel-good thriller. But the lead is so goofily charismatic that I couldn’t help but root for him as he traveled along his path to wisdom at a pleasant clip.

I approach modern Chinese cinema with something of a jaundiced eye, always wondering where the propaganda will seep into the picture. But Super Me was no more laden with moralizing than standard Hollywood fare. This was aided by its narrative structure. While not on the same satirical-poetical level as Buñuel, Chong nicely bleeds reality and dream together. (His hand is heavier than the late Spanish master, but so is everyone else’s.) And moreso than Chris “I’mma Dreamer” Nolan, Chong has a playfulness and lack of pretention that makes Super Me a pleasant diversion from waking life.

Super Me is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…startling visuals, an immersive video game atmosphere, and a steady wash-rinse-repeat plot that’s equal parts simplicity and obscurity make this a potential cult film…  Just when you think you understand the rules of this bizarre world, a plot twist contradicts the conclusion.”–Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Jay Woelfel

FEATURING: Nick Baldasare, Rick Kesler, Susan Pinsky

PLOT: A young man finds himself trapped in a nightmare, and when he describes it to others, they are dragged into the dream, too.

Still from Beyond Dream's Door (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s a long shot, but if you catch this modestly-budgeted but ambitiously-scripted little surreal collegiate horror in the right mood—in a darkened room around midnight, with a joint burning absent-mindedly in the ashtray, maybe even playing on an old VCR with minor tracking issues—you might just find that it gets enough of its hooks in you to drag you into its dream world.

COMMENTS: Why does Julie dream about a red balloon? What is the relationship between the armless janitor, the serial killer, and the red rubber monster? And why trap unassuming student Ben Dobbs in a never-ending nightmare in the first place? Those are just a small sample of the questions Beyond Dream’s Door won’t be answering.

It begins with an obvious dream sequence: laughing voices on a telephone, a topless girl, blue zombie hands waving in the air like the crowd at Coachella had been dosed with Thorazine. And here comes a spoiler, that isn’t really that much of a spoiler—when Ben seems to wake up from that dream, having apparently dozed off while studying calculus, it turns out that he’s actually inside another dream. The reason that this isn’t much of a spoiler is that this turns out to be the structure of the entire movie: it’s basically one long montage of dream sequences, with perhaps a quarter of the action occurring in the waking world.

Made in the late 80s by recent graduates of the now-defunct Ohio State University film department, Beyond Death’s Door is an authentic student film. A lot of the crew worked for class credit instead of cash money. That fact is reflected in the uninspiring acting—much of it from theater majors rather than seasoned film actors—and the sometimes woeful props. Dream’s Door overcomes those deficiencies with well-paced action that efficiently carries the viewer from one inventive dream to another. The slight plot has Ben, and the professor and teaching assistants who are dragged into his nightmare after unwisely agreeing to read his dream transcripts, trying to defeat a monstrous force, whose ultimate identity and motivation is left up to the audience’s imagination. Experimental film techniques—slo-mo shots of bursting light bulbs with sizzling filaments, faces in funhouse mirrors twisted into Lovecraftian monsters—effectively deliver bizarre shocks while coming in under budget. Recurring dream characters include Ben’s non-existent brother and a topless temptress (added at the distributor’s insistence to inject some cheesecake), along with the monster and the various alter-egos of whatever entity is orchestrating this nightmare. Even some cheesy faux-Poe doggerel, read solemnly over a dream montage, only adds to the odd flavor. While psychological horror fans won’t mistake Beyond Dream’s Door for a masterpiece, it’s a charming underdog of a chiller that well rewards viewers willing to risk becoming trapped inside its 1980s VHS reality.

Beyond Dream’s Door is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (available here), where it joins the stop-motion monster flick Winterbeast (1992) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the better cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. The special edition DVD was loaded with extras (including two commentary tracks and the original short film from which Dream’s Door was adapted); Vinegar Syndrome ports all of those over, adding several more featurettes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Wolefel’s] fascinating first feature film, Beyond Dream’s Door, avoids clichés and formulas to bring the stunningly surreal world of nightmares into painful perspective. As a result, instead of the same old craven crap, we are privileged to see one of the late ’80s best independent fright films.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (2006 DVD)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: SLEEP (2020)

Schlaf

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Venus

FEATURING: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, August Schmölzer, Sandra Hüller, Marion Kracht

PLOT: Mona visits the hotel where her mother, a long-time sufferer of crippling nightmares, experienced a stupor-inducing breakdown, discovering that the known elements of its dark history pale in comparison to the full roster of its buried atrocities.

COMMENTS: If this is Germany’s answer to the often nonsensical “dream horror/thriller,” then sign me up for some naturalization papers. Before you ask, no, this is not a ground-breaking movie and no, this is not a movie that entirely makes sense. The latter of those aspects is partially what makes it merit 366’s attention, but what makes this such a delicious cake of silly, serious, piggy, Nazi, death-metal, hotelier smiley-horror are… well, those elements that I just listed to describe it. Like the nightmare boar that lurks around its periphery, the unexpected comes in from seemingly out of nowhere often enough to make Sleep highly enjoyable.

The nightmare plot is anchored by two heroines: Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) and her mother Marlene (Sandra Hüller). Marlene suffers from horrible nightmares and violent night terrors. She pulls a fast one on her daughter claiming she’ll be “overnighting in Istanbul” (Marlene is a stewardess), but actually heads to the Stainbach hotel she has begun to clearly see in her dreams. Three men have killed themselves in this dream hotel, and a fourth much more dangerous man threatens her subconscious. Shortly after checking into the generically named “Sonnenhügel” (“sun hill”) hotel (into the symbolism-heavy room number “187”), she suffers a massive attack and ends up in a stupor at a nearby hospital. Daughter Mona’s subsequent visit to Sonnenhügel is where the real story begins…

There are a lot of obvious dreams and false-awakenings, but these are well-executed and forgivable considering the genre. Michael Venus even gives the viewers a primer on the repercussions of dying in dreams—Mona and Franzi (the only maid to be found in this massive hotel complex) have a conversation over coffee bluntly describing said survival chances. But the real menace comes from Franzi’s bosses, the hotel owners. Otto is affable and obliging in such a way that you know something creepy is up, but still want to believe him; his wife Lore has the reserved look of a woman who knows more than she wants to. (This idea is reinforced when we first see them arise from bed together; she lovingly undoes her husband’s wrist and ankle restraints for the day while he talks sweetly about a dream he had that night.)

What slips Sleep into the silly/creepy territory are Otto’s ambitions beyond hotel development. I’ve already hinted at these, so I’ll go no further than to say that there are ultimately some heavy references to Pigsty and a massacre that could have been lifted straight from the Inglorious Basterds playbook. Whoever else Michael Venus is, he’s someone who feels that too much of a good thing is a better thing: dreams, drugged schnapps, creepy pig-masked men in tuxedos, incubi, and revenge, revenge, revenge. That, it appears, is a dish best served with strobe lights flashing, meat tenderizer in hand, and a surprise knife to the neck.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Occasional non-sequiturs and bursts of surreal speech invite us to wonder if we’re dreaming… There’s a lot to digest here and at times it feels as if Venus has added more ingredients than he really needs… Nevertheless, it’s a stylish attempt to address issues that remain taboo for many Germans. It invites us all to look directly at what lies in the unconscious, to address it there before it takes physical form.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DREAM DEMON (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Harley Cokeliss (as Harley Cokliss)

FEATURING: Jemma Redgrave, Kathleen Wilhoite, Mark Greenstreet, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail

PLOT: Diana is about to get married to a Falklands War hero, but starts suffering nightmares as the date of her nuptials approaches.

Still from Dream Demon (1988)

COMMENTS: Leading lady Jemma Redgrave is the niece of cinema’s heavy-hitting grand dame, Vanessa Redgrave. Nicolas Cage is the nephew of cinema’s heavy-hitting director Francis Ford Coppola. I bring up this semi-coincidence to allow me to raise the following point: a movie as overblown as Dream Demon would have done much better with an actor as overblown as Nicolas Cage. As it stands, Jemma Redgrave provides a capable performance as bride-to-be Diana, but her energy level is far too wan—perhaps I might say too “English”—for the blood-splattered, creepy-staircase-laden, hard-to-follow nightmare on screen. Redgrave hovers at a “proper” Four, when Dream Demon demands nothing short of a Cage-ian Eleven.

Had Harley Cokeliss (who co-wrote as well as directed) pursued the story he should have, that kind of quiet nuance might have been appropriate. He falls into the trap that ensnares horror writers and directors all too often, however: wanting to graft ill-thought-out scares onto dramas that could have been more interesting in their own right. Dream Demon, in its real world portions, touches on a lot of issues worth exploring: the bilious nature of the British press corps in the 1980s, the strange flag-waving jingoism of the Falklands War, the culture clash of Los Angeles and London society, the manifestations of childhood guilt, and the fears of human sexuality as expressed by the subconscious.

Instead, there are dreams within dreams (within dreams, and so on). These dreams, as the title suggests, are invariably nightmares—and Dream Demon opens with a real doozie. During a full-on, hyper-Anglican wedding—replete with far-flung family and officer chummies of the groom—Diana gets cold feet at the last possible moment and refuses to say “I do” at the vicar’s prompt. Furious with embarrassment, the groom (Mark Greenstreet, doing the best impression of David Bowie‘s ’80s hair-cut I’ve ever seen) slaps her; she slaps him back, and his head explodes. The blood-spattered bride walks back down the aisle and outside into the crowd of paparazzi. Alas, anyone who’s anyone knows that this opening is not to be–and we see the bride-to-be awakening in the arms of her fiancé who showers her with the standard “Everything’s all right!” platitudes.

So Dream Demon skirts around full-bore madness while also ignoring the many issues it raises with its colorful cast of characters. (I wish to take a moment for a special shout-out to Timothy Spall; not for his performance within Diana’s dreams, but as the tremendous skeezeball photojournalist who at one point inquires, “[Your fiancé] murdered a lot of Argentinians. Does that turn you on?”) But overall, Dream Demon is an untidy mess of missed opportunities. If the craziness had been laid on as thick as the spoooooky sound cues, it might have been something.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sort of a serious attempt to deliver a new twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula with a dose of Hellraiser-style surrealism in its second half, this is a film that requires a bit of work to fully embrace but delivers plenty of atmosphere and some quirky little chills that nicely evoke the subtle but unsettling nature of very bad dreams.” -Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo-Digital [Blu-ray]