FEBRUARY 10, 2011
The biggest problem I had with the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels is that the nightmare sequences never came across like actual nightmares that people had, but fully formed ideas that made total (movie) sense and could be followed. In contrast, while it may not have much narrative cohesion, Beyond Dream’s Door has some of the best dream/nightmare imagery I’ve ever seen in a film, made more impressive by the fact that it’s the product of an 80’s Ohio State film class.
Ever try to describe a dream you had and realize when you’re telling it that it doesn’t make a single word of sense? That’s sort of what describing this movie would be like. It wasn’t until I watched the movie again with the commentary that I fully grasped certain scenes or plot points, and I’m still a bit wonky on others. But that’s the way it should be – the entire movie is about dreams, and thus making simple sense out of everything would be counter to the point, I think. But whereas that would normally annoy me, here I found it kind of refreshing, because they didn’t tone down the inherent nonsense of dreams in order to tell a more straightforward story. So when characters chase balloons for no reason, or paper airplanes fly out of nowhere, or locations shift as a character walks from point A to point B, sure it’s a bit disorienting, but it’s also very much identifiable as a common dream. Writer/director Jay Woelfel never tries to trick you into thinking something is really happening, and so he is free from the limitations the Nightmare movies and other films with dream motifs impose by trying to make the audience think whagt is happening is real (we’re also spared a lot of the usual “Hey this is happening now for real just as it was in my dream!” crap).
And while comparisons to the Nightmare series are unavoidable, the film does not feel like a cheap cash-in or wannabe. The plot here (best I can figure) is about a guy who hasn’t been able to dream for 15 years, since his parents died when he was a kid (sort of backwards, but I’ll go with it), and thus the dreams are sort of repressed and kind of pissed off about it. And so the action stems from these dreams (including a naked chick – a repressed wet dream? Gotta be a first) trying to kill him for some sort of revenge. That’s a pretty nifty concept, I think, and it lends itself to a number of different dream motifs as opposed to just one Freddy Krueger-esque villain. There’s the naked chick, a goofy rubber monster, random creepy folks, even some zombies at one point.
Where it gets kind of muddled involves the other people in the movie who get involved, in particular two TAs from his psychology class, as well as the professor who the dream monsters get early on so we can understand (relatively) the stakes – they can somehow make you non-existent. After they get him, there’s no record of his existence anymore; his phone line is gone, no listing in the directory, etc. Not sure how dream demons have this sort of power, and I’m not entirely sure I understand WHY they do this (something about covering up their existence, I think), but either way they definitely could have spent a little more time clarifying this aspect of the story, because the more involved the TAs got, the less I was able to sort-of follow the narrative.
Also, when I was crystal clear on what was happening, and when I was completely off in “this makes Inland Empire look easy to follow” land, one thing was universally certain – the acting in this movie is awful. I expect some amateur performances in a student film, and if it was confined to the supporting characters and/or one major character who was also a producer or whatever, I wouldn’t mind. But literally EVERYONE, even the lead, is pretty bad here. Luckily the worst is the professor who dies about 25 minutes in or so, but there’s still plenty of awkward line readings, non-reaction shots, and performances that could best be described as “stiff”. It doesn’t help that Woelfel’s film instructor apparently never taught him that it’s OK to hold on the non-speaking actor while the off-screen actor says a line during a conversation, so every bad delivery is made even more glaring (not to mention impossible to fix with an overdub) when they’re not on-screen.
Oddly this makes the 2nd Thursday in a row that I’ve watched a movie that reminded me of Alan Wake, which obviously this movie cannot be accused of copying (Vanishing on 7th Street, on the other hand... I mean, the game had been discussed and previewed for FIVE YEARS before it finally came out). Here, the monsters are after the pages of our hero’s term paper, much like some of the bad guys were after scattered pieces of Wake’s novel in that game. Since Wake took influence from a whole bunch of existing stuff (Twin Peaks, Stephen King, etc), I momentarily wondered if they had seen the movie too, but I doubt it. Just a cool idea I guess.
The DVD is jam-packed with stuff, though much of it caters more to those who consider the movie one of their top 10 of all time, as a lot of it is rather worthless to a casual fan (nor would it help you appreciate the movie more if you didn’t care for it). Outtakes without source audio, scenes deleted due to light leaks, makeup tests, and “alternate and unused takes” are of no interest to casual viewers, and then there’s the recorded acceptance speech for some award that they don’t even reveal. Hey, who needs context? I did enjoy the short pieces from local news broadcasts that covered the film’s production; I would love to see this become a more common extra, as everyone’s local news covers these movies from time to time when news is slow. The retrospective piece is also pretty good, with most of the participants returning, 15 years after the film was made.
The ones you should check out are the two commentary tracks (one with Woelfel solo, one with him and some of the cast/crew), as they help explain some of the muddier plot points, and provide a lot of still useful information for folks shooting their own ambitious student films. I also liked the short film that inspired the feature, which is interesting as the two main actors were originally in the other’s role (be even more interesting if they were better actors, but I digress). There’s also a shorter short that inspired the main short (!), and both have Woelfel commentaries as well. I mean, if you downright hated the movie, you probably shouldn’t bother (especially since I got a slight sense that these guys have glorified their efforts a bit, as if it was as big as Eraserhead or something), but otherwise it’s pretty enjoyable stuff.
Mainly though, I was just sort of charmed by seeing an indie horror film that was unique and creative. Nowadays, most of the “indies” I see are just cheap rehashes of the same sort of stuff the studios are making (i.e. crappy slashers and/or Saw ripoffs), and it’s rare I sense any true ambition. Beyond Dream’s Door may not be a slam dunk, but it was a step in the right direction – unlike these modern efforts, the film’s faults lie largely with a dearth of resources, not creativity.
What say you?