Sleep as a source of horror is nothing new. Freddy Krueger is one of the most iconic characters of the last forty years in film and has become somewhat defanged over the years, but what he represents (something from the realm of sleep being able to kill you) is arguably one of the most frightening ideas we can imagine. There’s something primordial about a fear of dreams in general, something archetypical. In the words of favorite songsmith of the youth of today Billie Eilish, “when we all fall asleep, where do we go?” Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True puts this fear front and center, using it as a vehicle to go to some truly weird places.
Come True focuses on Sarah, a young woman who, for reasons unspecified, is currently sleeping outside and crashing on friends’ floors. She only goes home to shower, avoids her mother and is clearly not having an easy time of things. It’s never explained as to why she’s not staying at home, but it’s not really all that important and just makes the film feel even more like a dream than it already does. Sarah is also being plagued by re-occuring dreams in which she encounters an ominous shadowy figure who is never quite revealed but is nonetheless quite frightening to behold. Early in the film, Sarah learns of a month-long sleep study and sees it not only as an opportunity to have a place to sleep at night, but also to maybe get some answers as to why she’s been having these eerie nightmares. The study reveals some rather disturbing things about her dreams, and soon we’re neck deep in a fantastically strange horror film (and also neck deep in achingly adorable George Romero references. But I digress.)
Right off the bat, this film hits us with a dream sequence. Rarely in films have I seen a nightmare done effectively but Come True is honestly the closest I’ve ever seen to actually putting on film how a dream truly looks. The dream sequences in this film are so subtly unnerving they’re almost difficult to watch. They resemble something like a frozen shot from a Brothers Quay film, or a Geiger piece, or a Zdzisław Beksiński painting. Just otherworldly and absolutely weird. There’s no overt monsters or spooky figures or anything, just something inexplicably threatening about it all. It’s ripe with the visual unlogic of dreams and nightmares. It’s got the same quiet menace that the conversation in Winky’s Diner has from Mulholland Drive right before Bonnie Aarons slides out from behind a dumpster and scares the bejesus out of Patrick Fischler. (And us.) There’s also a scene in a laundromat in which something Sarah sees triggers her to have a panic attack, and the way she reacts is the most realistic depiction of how a panic attack feels that I’ve ever seen.
Come True is a deeply sensual film, in that it looks and sounds extremely distinct. As softly grotesque the scenes as the dream sequences are, the scenes that take place in Sarah’s waking life are colored a lovely subdued pastel palate, sometimes light green, other times purple or pink. All of this makes for a film that is extremely easy on the eyes. It just looks gorgeous, like the lighting from skyscrapers at night as you’re driving through a city, all neon and brake lights and streetlamps. Even when we’re being presented with bizarre scary shit, the palate of this film is the visual of equivalent of “ahhhhhhh” when fireworks go off. The music rounds out the sight and sound experience that this film offers. I was reminded at times of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s work in Annihilation, or Vangelis’ Blade Runner score: a lot of soft synth washes and coldly lush strings creating a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere that compliments the themes of the film perfectly.
Sarah is perfectly brought to life by Canadian actor Julia Sarah Stone. Stone flawlessly shoulders the weight of this film and portrays Sarah as a seemingly fragile but competent character who evokes empathy without coming off as pitiful. You feel sorry for Sarah but she isn’t pathetic. Her fear at what’s unfolding around her and the blossoming panic she feels realizing what’s happening is contagious to the viewer and puts us entirely in her shoes. That’s not to say that Sarah is some kind of “damsel in distress”, although in all fairness one of the male researchers who is infatuated with her without a doubt sees her that way. Instead, she’s just someone who is dealing with something they can’t understand and not in a healthy or constructive manner. She actually resists help from the researchers upon finding out the purpose of their experiences, and while she is the focus of Jeremy’s (the male researcher) romantic attention, this only serves as another cog in the wheel of the film’s strange dreamy narrative without reducing to her an object or taking away her autonomy as a person in the film.
This wouldn’t be a horror film without some actual horror, and good grief is this film effective at delivering. Not only are Sarah’s dream sequences viscerally unsettling, there’s numerous sequences involving a machine that translates electric signals from the brain into visual information so researchers can have a rough idea of what a person is dreaming that are creepy as all hell. There’s a scene at the end with it that reminds me of this very scary scene from the 1999 remake of The House On Haunted Hill. And like I mentioned earlier, a lot of the horror of this film comes from empathizing with Sarah and imagining yourself in her situation. It’s a profoundly upsetting subject and Come True wields the horror of it like a scalpel.
Dreams rarely make any sort of thorough sense, and few films capture this feeling as effectively as Come True does. I had mentioned earlier that some of the dream sequences felt like something David Lynch would do, and that sentiment extends to the rest of the film as well. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Sarah and Jeremy are driving through a city at night, and it reminded me a lot of the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive. It’s an experience you would have with someone you’re starting to fall for, and even though you’re half asleep, you’re happy at the moment. That’s a perfect summation of this film, I think. Despite being acutely horrifying there’s an almost erotic tenderness to it at times, and this combination fully immerses the viewer in the experience that the film seeks to create within us. It is, quite literally and for better or for worse, a dream coming true.