Come True: Indie horror is a creepy and haunting 80s love letter

The concept of dreams and their existential significance has produced some pretty unique and provocative films over the years. At its most frightening, it yielded the now legendary A Nightmare on Elm Street, a groundbreaking supernatural slasher that was inspired by the equally horrifying true-life happenings of Hmong refugees to the U.S. who complained of war-related nightmares and then died in their sleep soon after. It’s certainly ripe for compelling scares, being the period where we’re at our most vulnerable due to our reduced consciousness and the spine-tingling tales we hear about parasomnias such as sleep-walking, night terrors and exploding head syndrome (the name may be amusing but what it does to people sure as f**k isn’t).

There is also the more elusively poignant dynamic to our dreamscapes that is equally important, a decent amount of cinematic articulations cannily tapping into the mental-emotional complexities of vivid dreams that reflect our innermost desires, fears and regrets. With Inception, Christopher Nolan used a high-concept science of dream-state as the groundwork for what is essentially a heist thriller, but it’s one that seamlessly captures the forceful and somewhat melancholic pangs of contemplation and introspection many of us feel after experiencing dreams that incorporate people or things we’re familiar with. It makes perfect sense that you’d briefly feel a bit funny about a person if they materialise in your subconscious, the most fundamental aspect of one’s being. Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) and its superfluous Hollywood remake Vanilla Sky posited fascinating and troubling hypotheticals regarding dreams and their relation to free will, and David Lynch’s trademark nuttier-than-squirrel-turds eccentricity and surrealism don’t inhibit the bizarrely moving power of Mulholland Drive in its singular riff on slumberland.

Come True, the sophomore feature-length effort from Canadian director Anthony Scott Burns, is an ambitious and striking throwback that balances sci-fi horror with the emotionally and intellectually stirring mystique around the psychological and physiological ‘Why?’ of our dreams. While it’s not perfect and is likely to frustrate viewers with its arguable lack of clarity, it nevertheless remains a bold and original work that will be sticking in the mind of Yours truly for a while.

Sarah Dunne (Julia Sarah Stone) is a teenager having some serious problems when it comes to getting a good night’s kip. From the film’s minimalist exposition, we can glean that she has run away from home, though the cause for such an action is kept a mystery, one that feels all the more counterintuitive when we witness her silently watching her mother drive to work so she can sneak back into the house to shower. Sarah alternates between bedding down on a slide in a children’s playground, nodding off in her high school classes and occasionally being allowed to crash in the room of her best friend Zoe (Tedra Rogers). Whatever the case, our heroine is plagued by discomfort and spooky, distorted nightmares that shock her awake and leave her baggy-eyed and thoroughly exhausted.

Meeting up with Zoe at a local cafe one afternoon, Sarah spots a vaguely detailed advertisement for volunteers in a sleep study. Having trouble sleeping? Show up at this slightly creepy university lab for intensive monitoring whilst you’re snoring away, and you’ll pocket $12 an hour for your trouble. Desperate to get a healthy amount of rest and potential answers to why she endures such weird nightmares, Sarah checks it out and is greeted by the friendly albeit cagey overseer Anita (Carlee Ryski). Standing to make a decent amount of money if she commits to the desired two-month observation period, Sarah is encouraged by the presence of Anita and a female participant in the mostly-male volunteer group but, the longer she sticks around, the more batshit crazy the experiment becomes.

With her dreams becoming increasingly more frightening and nobody giving her any straight answers regarding the truth behind the study, Sarah’s perception of her dream-world and consensus reality begins to blur. Equally as troubling as her eldritch subconscious are the attentions of Jeremy (Landon Liboiron), a furtive and nerdy overseer who may or may not be stalking her, and the experiment’s shadowy head honcho Dr Meyer (Christopher Heatherington). Unless she finds out what these people want and what this study means for humanity, Sarah might never be waking up ever again.

It would completely ruin your viewing experience were I to tell you any more as Come True is a picture where the bare-bones set-up is the maximum information you should have going in. What certainly can be examined is the film’s lovingly crafted and deeply affecting aesthetic salute to 1980s horror and thriller cinema via retro-wave sensibility. The colour palette traverses deep blues and purples that immediately brought to mind the cover art of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming among other things, the luminous and sickly green of the study’s analogue monitors and Sarah’s dorm providing a satisfyingly jarring contrast to the minimalist, Blue Ruin-like lens of the opening scenes where our heroine is going about her day. Burns (who, alongside directing, took care of the cinematography, the editing and co-scored) demonstrates a great flair for photography in his capacity to make Sarah’s waking moments imbue us with the feeling that we’re also up and about at a dimly lit 6 AM. Her pained fatigue getting up in a kid’s park at dawn is as crisply shot and immersive as the images of Macon Blair sneaking out of houses and foraging for scraps in Jeremy Saulnier’s aforementioned indie hit, an atmospheric authentication that compounds the unsettling vibe of everything that follows.

Burns also appears to be something of a David Cronenberg, Michael Mann & Ridley Scott fanboy, and I say that with nothing but positive intentions. The ominously paced walkthrough of the sleep study’s procedure is adorned with the eerie warmth of Shriekback’s Coelocanth, a track that many will immediately recognise from the iconic sequence in Manhunter where Joan Allen’s Rheba sensually pets a sedated tiger. Such explicit homages are usually a shit-or-bust endeavour, but its marriage to the imagery here is nothing short of deft. This is complemented by a strongly composed and emotionally resonant synth-wave OST courtesy of Electric Youth and Burns, the score’s evocation of Blade Runner given ample sprinkling with Dr Meyer’s resemblance to Eldon Tyrell, both in appearance and demeanour. The film’s Cronenbergian flavour of paranoia (bolstered by autumnal shots of Edmonton’s modernist architecture) helps shake all of this up into a cinematically atavistic cocktail, Come True being bereft of any contemporary social/pop-cultural references and largely operating in the logical apparatus of a dream. Characters come and go unannounced, temporal uncertainty permeates the piece and there’s nothing to really indicate what year it’s meant to be taking place. Were it not for the presence of cell phones, it’s a work that could quite easily have been produced in the 70s or 80s, a facet that is deeply welcome as far as I’m concerned.

The film’s admirably imaginative approach to neuroscience and Jungian archetypes is in lockstep with its economic divulging of details, something that places it firmly in the strata of cerebral opacity that horror fans and general cinephiles seem to either adore or despise. Does it breathe some fresh air into the horror genre? For my money, yes. Strongly acted by Stone in a way that sympathetically transcends Sarah’s enigmatic characterisation, it’s nothing short of a visual-aural feast and it has a maximum of two jump scares, any work eschewing that tired and risible technique getting automatic points for that alone. The already-controversial final reveal actually cemented it as something unforgettable for me, a resolutely haunting emotive sniper-shot that takes the film beyond mere goosebump-inducement and makes it plaintive and weirdly beautiful. We’re still pretty early in 2021 and this has already gone down as one of the year’s most daring thought-provokers in my book, so do yourself a favour and catch it. Just do it in the daytime, because you’ll be twisting and turning all night otherwise.

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