By Keri O’Shea
Dreams are curious things; they can be a distillation of the deepest anxieties and fears which leave people cold long after waking, or they can be pure wish fulfillment – but in either incarnation, the way the brain can weave elements into a narrative is clearly always going to be appealing, fertile terrain for movies. Capturing dreams on film, though, has often proved difficult – they’re so deeply personal, so anchored to a million things which make us unique that even the most precise teller often finds it impossible to communicate to someone else just what it was, exactly, that scared them so much about a dream: it always sounds innocuous, or else plain silly. Many filmmakers have shot dream sequences, particularly in horror, with varying success – but one early compliment I’ll pay to Horsehead (2014) is that its heavy use of dreams throughout avoids feeling either innocuous or silly, and by-the-by I enjoyed the early nod to Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare in the very first dream-scene. However, due to the fact that the lead character spends most of the time asleep and lucid-dreaming, this creates its own issues for the way in which the film plays out.
A young twentysomething, Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) returns to the homestead at the request of her mother Catelyn (Catriona MacColl) after the death of her maternal grandmother. It seems that Jessica’s life away from home – as a student of the science of lucid dreaming, following her lifetime’s experience of the phenomenon – is a lot less problematic than things seem there, as her mother is cold and snippy from the outset, and doesn’t seem to want to talk much about the deceased grandmother currently propped up on pillows in the bedroom adjoining Jessica’s, where she’s looking for all the world like the grand-mere in Amer (which isn’t the first or the last time that the Amer comparison springs to mind, incidentally). Jessica takes refuge from these frosty maternal relations by seeking to find out more about Rose, her grandmother: it transpires that Rose committed suicide, and had laboured under apparently declining mental health just prior to her death (leaving behind a body of work which looks like all insanity-doodles look in films – black and grey artwork and mysterious bold text aplenty). By practicing her lucid dream technique, Jessica is quickly able to ‘speak’ with Rose – whose insistence that Jessica help her find ‘the key’ throws her granddaughter onto the trail of some family secrets.
At some early stage in the creation of Horsehead, a deliberate decision was made to explore the story almost completely via dreams and altered states. There’s a certain boldness to that which I admire, and to give credit to the film – under first-time feature director Romain Basset – it looks amazing, beautifully coloured and framed throughout, whilst the droning, evocative soundtrack fits very well. I’ll just mention Amer again here – and maybe Livide (2011) too. Since Jessica spends a lot of her time dreaming, and fever-dreaming no less (well hello, carte blanche!) strangeness pervades throughout the entire film, even when all the protagonists are awake; interiors in particular always look like they could always give way to a monster in the corner of the room (although they don’t) and the slightly stilted conversation between actors, whether or not it was intended to be stilted like this, all adds to the atmosphere – of the impression that nothing is working perfectly well in this world. It’s not just the script, either; the fact that we have a cut glass-accented mother and stepfather in Catriona MacColl and Murray Head, living in France, with a daughter who herself has a distinct French drawl to her spoken English – well, it all makes the film feel like it’s part of that pan-European tradition which has held sway over some of the most successful horrors, those charming hodgepodges of locations, actors and nationalities.
Still, because the film opts to be largely a dream narrative, it labours under all the challenges as well as the charms of this approach. Make it unclear when a character is awake or asleep, or what is real or imagined, and your job as a storyteller gets a hell of a lot more difficult. Peg your film on specific symbolism, such as on the ‘horse head’ itself, and you risk stranding your audience if you don’t explore it fully. I felt far more willing to go along with Horsehead’s happily-shaky grasp on reality at the beginning of the film; as it went on, I felt a little less amenable. As my mind inevitably started to attempt to sift through the real and the unreal – as it often does when lucid dreaming, actually – some issues cropped up: just as with sci-fi, because it’s fantasy-based it doesn’t mean you can automatically forget about any sort of internal logic. I confess I started to weigh up character ages, and look at their costumes, and pitch that against what we were being asked to accept – and yeah, I’d love to have suspended my disbelief entirely, but as elegant a film as this is, it’s still a film telling a story, and ultimately as a yarn about a family tragedy, it didn’t quite hang together for me. (Also – Jessica’s ‘big revelation’ towards the film’s close? That was a cliche which the film could definitely have done without.)
So – it’s big and bold, for sure, and the makers of Horsehead have clearly taken great pains to capture the ghastly otherworldliness of nightmares on screen. The film itself isn’t always successful, but it’s striven to do something different, and its development of atmosphere is indeed impressive. If narrative isn’t your chief concern (last mention of Amer goes here) then this may be of interest to you, and I’ve certainly seen enough here to make me interested in any further work by Basset.
Horsehead will be coming to Blu-ray/DVD/VOD on June 23, 2015 from Artsploitation Films.