Terror Films' 'I Dream Of A Psychopomp' Is Well Crafted But Unfocused Effort

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Psychopomp [siko`pamp], n. (in Greek mythology): 1. a guide of souls to the place of the dead 2. the spiritual guide of a living person's soul

Of all the universal mysteries, none equals death. What occurs to each of us in that moment when our hearts cease to beat and our lungs no longer draw breath is the central enigma of life itself, the source of more rumination than any other subject and the crux of every religious ideology known to humankind. For in the cessation of life, the question remains: does it continue? Do our individual personalities--our loves, our hates, our passions--survive to transition to another realm of existence?

Belief systems throughout history have sought for millennia to answer that single meditative matter; countless works of theology, philosophy and art have pontificated, illustrated and dramatized that which their creators theorize happen to us post mortem. Cinema, perhaps understandably given its presence as a primarily entertainment-oriented medium, may seem an unusual venue to explore such heady topics, but filmmakers both well-known and obscure have utilized celluloid to broach the issue in myriad ways. Horror in particular, with its unvarnished attitude towards on-screen death, is the genre closest to that eternal mystery, and of any silver screen venture offers audiences a safe, even cathartic examination of its unknowable aspects.

Terror Films and How Bizarre Pictures latest effort, I Dream Of A Psychopomp, is one such film eager to investigate that mystique. Marketed as 'An Anthology of Death', each of its three narratives relate closely to what lies beyond life's end. The movie's framing sequence centers on Kerry (Elohim Peña) a young man haunted by his own culpability in the car accident that killed his wife, Evelyn (Kulani Kai). Caught in the distressing twilight of grief, Kerry is stunned when he experiences visions of his dead dearly beloved, and becomes further unsettled when a beckoning cloaked figure leads him through differing realities in which others relay their own tales of earthly loss.

Kerry's initial visit is to the turgid world of high school crushes and social awkwardness in the film's first, and weakest, segment, 'Spellbound High Monster Hop'. A devil-masked boy (Travis Greene) with Carrie White-like psychokinetic abilities, forces his classmates into a grotesque Danse Macabre parody of their school's annual Halloween costume ball where he controls their every movement.

The next, stronger, installment, 'Answers', posits the movie's deepest incursion into horror, complete with possession, multiple personalities and murder. When creepy child abductor Carl (Peter Knox) is interrogated by police seeking the location of his latest kidnapped victim, they allow spirit medium Deena Swann (N. Meridian), who believes Carl may not be as human as everyone assumes, to question him as well. Her hunch proves correct, and it's soon revealed that Carl's body houses a demonic doppelgänger that forces him to commit evil acts and prevents him from dying to keep the sinister sacrificial cycle alive.

The final, and in some ways, most rewarding, piece, 'Until Forever', focuses on an ancient vampire (Ben Shaul) whose thirst for eternal life has eroded into unbearable ennui by the time he meets a cancer-stricken child (Jillian Lebling) desperate for a devil's bargain to escape her grim fate. With its dark visuals, young protagonist and ultimate outcome, this entry could easily be mistaken as a prequel to the 2009 cult bloodsucker film Let The Right One In.

None of the segments in I Dream Of A Psychopomp are completely satisfying as stories in and of themselves; 'Spellbound High Monster Hop' is ill-explained and instantly forgettable, and even the potent 'Answers' and solemn 'Until Forever' are too brief for true emotional engagement. For such a short film (only eighty minutes), the pacing is oddly leaden in spots, and there's the shrinking suspicion the filmmakers were aiming for goals loftier than their budget allowed. An attempt was made to unify the entries--references are made indicating each section takes place in the same uniquely named town of Spellbound--but the overall picture feels incomplete, like a puzzle missing its most important pieces. Yet it would be wrong to say there's nothing of value on display. Taken as a whole, the overarching themes--of love, loss, despair, continuity--are expertly depicted, particularly by lead actor Peña; his portrayal of bereavement is powerful enough to elevate the framing sequence above the anthology's actual installments. The directing, too, by Danny Villanueva Jr. is captivating; there's a lush emphasis on color, vivid purples, golden hues, midnight blacks, that creates a visual palate intoxicating to the eye, and in his hands grave subject matter is molded with surprising tenderness. Some should be warned, however, that as a work of horror, I Dream Of A Psychopomp isn't a house that drips blood; Villanueva crafts scenes based on tension rather than gore, and shows a deft hand at establishing a thoroughly menacing and foreboding atmosphere. Those viewers accustomed to grisly grindhouse scenarios and double-digit body counts may be disappointed, but this Dream isn't about simple shock tactics; its reflective heart beats with eerie energy and macabre mood, its terror concentrated on the depths of the self, those inner anxieties about death we all collectively harbor.

In the end, Kerry's Dante-esque afterlife journey leads him to a place of, if not peace, than understanding with his station in the overall cosmic scheme. Likewise, the movie forces the audience to confront phantoms, not only of the departed, but within themselves. A well-crafted but slightly unfocused effort worth a watch but unlikely to inspire repeat viewings, I Dream Of A Psychopomp earns a decent 3 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. I'd enjoy seeing more of Villanueva's directing in the future.

3.0 / 5.0