“Come True” wears its many influences on its sleeve, notably the work of David Cronenberg and Philip K. Dick, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Donnie Darko,” with nods to “The Shining,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Terminator” thrown in for good measure. Nonetheless, filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns (“Our House”) melds those inspirations — as well as Rodney Ascher’s “The Nightmare” — to craft a uniquely illusory sci-fi thriller about an adrift young woman who copes with her unsettling slumbering visions by participating in a sleep study. With sterling command of its malevolently dreamy tone, it casts a disquieting spell that should bolster its chances to break out of the genre pack when it debuts in select theaters and on VOD on March 12.
Estranged from her mother for unknown reasons, 18-year-old Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) spends her nights in a sleeping bag on a playground slide, her mind gliding forward through dark, misty passageways decorated with shadowy bodies and structures, and ending in creepy doorways that lead to more of the same. Sarah is disconnected from family, home and self, and when she sees a flyer for a university sleep study, she takes the bait. There, she dons an all-white padded outfit and skull cap that resemble something out of “Videodrome” or “eXistenZ” (or Brandon Cronenberg’s recent “Possessor”), and is hooked up to machines via tangles of serpentine cables. As she drifts off into REM, her thoughts are monitored on grainy black-and-white screens by Dr. Meyer (Christopher Heatherington) and his assistants, led by anxious Anita (Carlee Ryski) and nerdy Jeremy (Landon Liboiron).
iPhones are a tip-off that this is all taking place in the present day, although “Come True” remains awash in ’80s-style electronic devices and synth-heavy music (courtesy of Electric Youth and Pilotpriest). The result is a strange of-two-worlds vibe that’s amplified by the narrative proper, in which Sarah becomes increasingly suspicious of the trial’s purpose. Also serving as cinematographer and editor, Burns is more interested in atmosphere than in plot propulsion, and he takes his time dropping in and out of Sarah’s waking and subconscious realities, the latter of which is envisioned with patient, floating, fuzzy menace, and generally comes to an end when Sarah reaches a hunched, silhouetted male figure with glowing red eyes.
That individual, it turns out, isn’t exactly exclusive to Sarah’s dreams, as a series of incidents — some understood by Sarah, others known only to us – reveal that Dr. Meyer and company are investigating the faceless specters that those suffering from sleep paralysis claim to see standing beside their beds. What these academics hope to find out about this phenomena is anyone’s guess, but the creatures’ burning eyes and unnatural postures definitely suggest that they’re far from friendly. Even seeing a photograph of one of these boogeymen — as Sarah does during an exit interview — is apt to instigate violent seizures, and it’s not long before Sarah is second-guessing her decision to go through with this process, especially once a particularly disturbing encounter causes her eye to bleed.
Navigation and investigation of dark unconscious realms is the film’s stock and trade, and “Come True” is best when indulging in hypnotic trips through Sarah’s dozing reveries, full of disparate corridors where the fog is thick, the walls are crumbling, the floors are damp, and squishy and/or creaking sounds abound. Burns has a flair for symbiotic bio-mechanical imagery (even the white eye-patch Sarah wears feels Borg-ish), and Stone’s performance is at once empathetically traumatized and just vague enough to heighten the overarching mystery of her circumstances. The film operates likewise, providing mounting details about its scenario and yet keeping concrete answers to its big picture just out of reach.
That obliqueness can be a tad frustrating, and its finale — replete with a hint of vampirism — delivers a last-second bombshell that fails to successfully detonate. By and large, though, this portrait of the gossamer-thin boundary between the real and the unreal thrives on unnerving haziness.
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