IFC Midnight properly knows its audience for this chilling, but uneven exploration of sleep paralysis.
What if during one of your worst nightmares, you couldn’t wake up, no matter how hard you tried? This the brooding question hanging throughout Come True, Anthony Scott Burns‘ sophomore horror thriller, coming off of Our House in 2018. The director (and now screenwriter) brings his visual effects background to develop an atmospheric wasteland of pure, spine-chilling dread with just a touch of analog sci-fi. The result is an ironically snoozy slog about the horrors of sleep paralysis that gets by more on vivid aesthetic than the sheer terror of what keeps us up at night.
The film centers around Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone), a teenage runaway who spends most of her nights in playgrounds and her days guzzling down coffee. As luck would have it, the nearby university offers Sarah a seemingly perfect opportunity. She can rest there every night for their voluntary sleep study, and she’ll even get paid for it. One of the catches, however, is that she has no idea what they’re actually studying.
As someone who has participated in multiple sleep studies, it’s easy to distinguish this university’s eerie intentions through striking visual cues. Sarah is dressed up in all white, with a flavor of mechanical engineering ripped out of a Ridley Scott feature. And Sarah even begins to notice that one of the scientists, Jeremy (Landon Liboiron), has a strange fixation on her, even studying her out in public.
The longer she participates in the sleep study, the more horrific her dreams become, and the film posits that when it comes to our unconscious, we’re far more powerless than we might expect.
The majority of the film’s first two acts borrow heavily from the moody, unsettling energy of It Follows, complete with a slavishly synth soundtrack and minimalistic locations. At one point, Sarah even wanders an empty town in the wee hours, where it looks like no one has lived in this otherwise bustling metro for years.
These choices serve the story, of course, which uncovers the chilling depths of our dreams, hinting that they bring us closer to dark, even demonic elements we simply don’t understand. Come True never comes full circle on these sci-fi notions, however; it only lightly proposes a fascination with the possibilities of a more interesting movie.
More enjoyable to think about than it is to actually watch.
Despite all its appealing trappings and game performances, the script feels padded out to fit feature length (a short film might’ve been extraordinarily better in this case).
It’s never easy to produce a film with such long stretches of wordless scenes, but it can be done, namely when these extended pastiches are built out to provide a steady flow of useful information to the audience — see Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Ex Machina. No such luck with Come True, which overcompensates its lack of vitality with slow-motion scenes repeating the same conceptual frights over and over again without saying anything meaningful about them.
Even a film as lo-fi as The Vast of Night dabbles in this coy plotting much better, where the answers feel almost purposefully out of reach. Similarly, Possessor struck a much finer balance between its horror elements and sci-fi machinations, resulting in a far more complete thought of a film.
This is illustrated even further by the final act twist in Come True, which comes off like an actual parody of its own genre. It’s the kind of twist that makes you wonder if someone — who knows who — inserted it at the last second in an effort to resolve an ambiguity that audiences would have found too unsatisfying.
Whatever the case, Come True is creepy enough on its own merits to invite some hardcore fans of the genre into a consistently trippy experience. Though it’s probably more enjoyable to think about than it is to actually watch. Its commentary on sleeping disorders is mostly surface-level, but the anxiety of these conditions does come through in Stone’s performance, even if it’s rudely interrupted in the middle of the night by a meandering romance that could have easily been exorcised, along with maybe a third of the runtime.
Don’t count on Come True to do as its title suggests for your own dreams of a masterful sci-fi-horror wake-up call.
Come True wakes up in theaters and on demand March 12th.