In Dreams (1999): Neil Jordan’s Horror Tale, Starring Annette Bening

Dark and scary, Neil Jordan’s In Dreams is a wildly eccentric picture: a metaphysical horror tale that’s likely to intrigue cerebral viewers, but will frustrate the more typical horror crowd, accustomed to genre items like Scream and its offshoots.

In an extremely challenging role that calls for her to appear in almost every frame, Annette Bening gives a riveting performance as a bright, married career woman whose mind is invaded by irrational and supernatural forces.

Well-mounted, with startling imagery from ace lenser Darius Khondji, DreamWorks’ release should enjoy a decent opening, but mixed to negative reviews and unenthusiastic word-of-mouth will curtail B.O. below expectations, due to an intense, convoluted narrative, with downbeat tone and shockingly unconventional ending, which doesn’t provide the genre’s customary pay-off.

In Dreams is not as flawed as Jordan’s other big-budget Hollywood movies, but it lacks the coherence and creative control he has exercised when working small-scale and on his own Irish turf, as evidenced most recently in the fully realized The Butcher Boy. Mining similar terrain as Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, a horror film structured as an adult fairy tale, new pic, which also works as a fairy tale, might be dismissed like the 1984 movie as seedy, lurid and mean-spirited.

Though the script is based on the novel “Doll’s Eyes” and is a collaborative effort of Jordan and Bruce Robinson, those familiar with Jordan’s movies will be able to detect thematic motifs running through his oeuvre: lost childhood, the haunting of the mind by irrational and unconscious forces, gender-bending and cross-dressing, the inextricable effect of the past on the present, above all, unusual pairings and psychological ambiguity. In these and other respects, In Dreams, which delves into the relatively unexplored and scientifically taboo realm of clairvoyance, is a quintessentially Jordan movie.

Opening credits, which roll underwater, reveal a ghost town entirely buried in the floods decades ago. The underwater motif enhances the yarn’s dimension of a hideous, seemingly forgotten past that comes to haunt the present residents of a now idyllic pastoral town. Claire (Bening), children’s books illustrator is married to a loving pilot (Aidan Quinn), raising with him a young daughter, Rebecca (Katie Sagona). But Claire’s modern marriage is strained by incessant dreams; even their lovemaking is interrupted by haunting images and sudden outbursts of violence.

Claire’s recurrent dreams reveal themselves in snippets and fragments: a little boy chained to a bed, a girl kidnapped by a faceless adult in an orchard of red apples. During one of her hubby’s business trips, Claire dreams of her daughter’s disappearance and, sure enough, hours later, Rebecca’s body is lifted out of the lake by the searching cops. In a manner of self-fulfilling prophecies, every single nightmare of Claire materializes. Driven to find out the true nature of her dreams–and those who annoyingly feed them–she gets increasingly obsessed, eventually descending into madness and asylum institutionalization.

It may not be a coincidence that Jordan, a subversive filmmaker, constructs all the characters that stand for rationality as male authority figures: husband Cooper, detective Jack Kay (Paul Guilfoyle), hospital doctor Stevens (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Dr. Silverman (Stephen Rea), a specialist brough in to work intimately with Claire. And like other Jordan pics, this one can be seen as a critique of the nuclear, bourgeois family.

A blend of psychological drama and supernatural horror, In Dreams is a movie where nothing is what it appears to be. Through eerily dark destiny, the paths of Claire and a serial killer on the loose crisscross and their fates intertwine, underscoring their duality as two sides of the human psyche, with Claire representing the good and right, and he the evil and wrong.

The last reel, which is the weakest and most over-baked visually, is confined to a cider factory, where Claire confronts her torturer. Echoing elements of Silence of the Lambs, and far more respectful of generic conventions than earlier segments, finale is directed in an amusingly self-conscious and reflexive manner, allowing horror aficionados to have a smile or two while watching some of the most frightening moments, a result of the excessively quirky dialogue and over-the-top acting by the killer.

If taken seriously (which I am not sure it should), In Dreams provides a wry commentary on the medical and psychiatric professions, both quick to label Claire’s conduct as delusional if not paranoid. The film also refutes such established notions as scientific progress and rational pragmatism. Viewers skeptical of the film’s more metaphysical themes will still show appreciation for the sense of dread that permeates the entire yarn. From the start, in a shrewdly Hitchcockian manner, Jordan implicates the viewers, placing them in Claire’s subjective mind, as they are the only ones to see the terrifying validity of her dreams.

Bening is well cast as a recognizably contempo woman whose mind and life disintegrate to a point of no return. With limited screen time, mostly in the last reel, Downey Jr. reps the underbelly of the dream world, an adult who has never really grown up, still childlike, misinformed, desperate to connect. Jordan’s regular, Rea, renders a low-key, understated performance as Dr. Silverstein, who initially symbolizes the rational element of culture, until his value system utterly collapses under the crushing evidence. Rest of the supporting ensemble is equally impressive.

Reversing Hollywood’s depiction of dream sequences–usually in black-and-white–lenser Khondji goes wild with colors, objects, and textures. Color separation is achieved with filters that distort images, giving them a richly saturated, almost surreal feel. Though red dominates, each dream is staged and filmed in a radically different style, some with hand-held camera, others like still tableaux. Shot in the fall in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee (for its dams), and Rosarito Mexico (for the ghost town covered in water), pic represents one of DreamWorks most elaborately produced efforts with superb technical values across the board.