Writer/director William Malone’s horror film Parasomnia begins auspiciously enough. The first thing you see is Sean Young, dressed to the nines, sitting on a rooftop patio. She answers her phone, her expression goes blank, she stands, strides over to the railing, and throws herself over the edge without so much as a word.
It’s an attention grabbing beginning to be sure, and it’s also Malone’s way of cluing you in as to what sort of movie you are about to watch. This opening is Young’s only appearance in the movie, and it should be noted that she doesn’t appear nearly as grizzled as she has in much of her recent work. So, good for her for taking care of herself.
Danny Sloan (Dylan Purcell) is a scrawny record store employee with an obsessive fetish for obscure ‘60s garage bands. He’s also an art student of some sort, though that aspect of his personality is never explored. Aside from a fellow record nerd that shares his taste, and a woman who lives on the same floor of his apartment building, he only has one real friend, Billy (Dov Tiefenbach, most recognizable as the twitchy guy with a backpack full of weed in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle).
When Danny visits Billy, who is in the middle of a court-ordered stint in rehab, he stumbles across Laura Baxter (Cherilyn Wilson), an inmate in the psych ward. Laura suffers from a rare disorder, Parasomnia, also known as Kline-Levin Syndrome, aka Sleeping Beauty Syndrome. Essentially, she has super narcolepsy. She wakes up occasionally, but the vast majority of her life has been lived in dreams.
Danny becomes fixated on Laura and visits her regularly, sitting at her bedside, talking to her, even playing classical music for her. Despite the fact that Danny is not family and has no other connection to her, the hospital staff has no problem with his visits. There are some glaring questions about the accuracy of this portrayal of a mental institution that would allow a stranger to wander in off the street and visit a random, unconscious patient.
The staff also lets him peek into the cell next door that happens to be occupied by notorious serial killer, Byron Volpe (Patrick Kilpatrick, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory). Volpe is bound to the ceiling by his wrists, and because he can hypnotize you with a single look, he as a black bag tied over his head.
There is an evil psychiatrist, so sinister that he’s on the verge of tenting his fingers and laughing maniacally, who wants to run all sorts of questionable tests on Laura, so Danny, now fully smitten, kidnaps her. For a minute you think the doctor is going to be the antagonist but, like other elements, this is dropped almost immediately after it is introduced.
Danny’s infatuation is creepy, and not creepy like Malone intends, horror movie creepy, this is a dirty kind of creepy. Since Laura has spent most of her life trapped inside dark dreams, she’s intellectually little more than a child. When she wakes up she’s reminiscent of Nell from Nell— unsocialized, uneducated, and unsure of how to interact with the waking world. During the moments that she’s awake, she’s wildly distressed and barely cognizant. She has little to no connection to this world. For her the real world is the world of dreams, not the corporeal.
Danny claims to be in love with Laura, but she doesn’t have any personality of her own. Most of the time she’s little more than a doll, a blank. Because she is an empty vessel, Danny can pretend that she’s flawless—the perfect woman. It’s not the reality of Laura that he loves, but the idea of her, the possibility. She’s someone who is never awake long enough to reject him, never conscious long enough to become blemished in any way. What he loves is a projection. It’s eerie… and a little bit gross.
For the first hour Parasomnia jumps around. For a while the story is Danny falling for Laura, then freeing her from the clutches of the evil doctor, then the focus shifts more towards Volpe, his obsession with Laura, and hypnosis. The plot shifts and shimmies this way and that, but not in a way that keeps you interested or keeps you guessing what will happen next, or even engages you at all. The plot is random and scattered. Just when everything seems to be going smoothly, the story takes another awkward turn.
At the one-hour mark Parasomnia gains a greater coherence. That’s also where the film spirals down into the sheer madness that occupies the remainder of the 100-minute run time. From there it becomes a surreal mass of intriguingly violent murders, hypnosis, automatons, and nightmare dreamscapes. It suffices to note that the climax involves a priest, a girl with peacock feathers stuck in her back, a robot that looks like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Russian roulette, and a cellist with welding goggles, among other unexpected things.
While the mayhem deepens, the film becomes more and more compelling. It doesn’t always make sense, and it isn’t always consistent, but it’s both fun and interesting to watch.
During the first part of Parasomnia, Malone employs a bunch of tricks in an attempt to set the mood. There is the obligatory Hitchcockian score, complete with sharp string arrangements, black and white flashbacks, canted framing, blue light filters, and all manner of awkward pulls, pans, and distorted photography. All of these elements piled on top of each other can be heavy-handed, like having tension and atmosphere crammed down your throat.
When you see Laura’s dreams, the landscape seems familiar because you’ve seen it before. The topography of her dreams owes a large debt to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), and you expect to see David Bowie and some Muppets pop out from behind every corner.
It’s this early reliance on hackneyed conventions that keeps Parasomnia from being something really extraordinary. After the shift, the imagery is much more striking, the action is more intense, and the story is generally more gripping. All of the things Malone tries, and fails to do early on, actually happen as the narrative progresses. The climactic scene is strange and hallucinatory, but at the same time feels natural and organic instead of forced and contrived. Parasomnia is never creepier, more frightening, more engaging, or better, than it is here.
The DVD comes with a ton of bonus features. There’s a 15-minute making of featurette that is pretty middle of the road, a library of production stills, and a trio of deleted scenes, including the original beginning.
There’s an extensive collection of interviews with key cast and filmmakers. It’s fun to listen to Malone talk. His enthusiasm for the project is imminently clear, which stands to reason since he personally financed the film with his own money. Timothy Bottoms shares a bunch of candid stories that, while rambling and open ended, still manage to be interesting. The interview with Jeffrey Combs, who plays an unnecessary detective, is by far the most entertaining. All told, there’s almost an hour of interviews. If you watch them all you’ll learn fun facts, like that Patrick Kilpatrick hit on Dylan Purcell’s mom.
Malone provides a commentary track. It contains the usual, mundane stuff, like how lucky they were to get this actor, how he’s always wanted to work with so-and-so, and how the script originated (he was largely inspired by older films, most notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Svengali). Some of it’s interesting, some isn’t. Sprinkled throughout there are also a fair number of personal stories, like how one character was inspired by a speed freak friend of his, and various anecdotes about the perils and opportunities of low-budget filmmaking.