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Weekly Alibi In Dreams

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 25, 1999:  The Italians have a word for it. It's called giallo--the violent thriller. Since the 1960s, Italian filmmakers have cranked out hundreds of these pulse-pounding amalgamations of Alfred Hitchcock and Friday the 13th. The master of all giallo filmmakers is one Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat o' Nine Tails, Deep Red, Suspiria). Of course, Argento had nothing to do with DreamWorks' new killer thriller In Dreams. ... But he should have.

In Dreams is the work of acclaimed Brit boy Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire). Although I have no proof, I'm quite sure Jordan wouldn't have embarked on the writing and directing of this film had he not first absorbed an inspiring dose of Argento's work. The set-up for In Dreams is pure, unadulterated giallo. Annette Bening is Claire Cooper, an illustrator of children's books who has been haunted her whole life by vaguely psychic premonitions. When an unknown psycho begins stalking little girls in rural Massachusetts, however, Claire begins to receive some very powerful prophetic visions. Every time she falls asleep, she is plagued by images of a long-haired man leading a little girl through an apple orchard. She also sees a bizarre underwater town and a snippet of nursery rhyme, which she believes are clues to the killer's past. Claire is convinced she has evidence which can be used to hunt down the killer. Unfortunately, nobody believes her.

As the murders continue, Claire goes more and more nutty--believing, eventually, that she can communicate directly with the killer via her dreams. In the end, Claire is forced to escape from a psychiatric hospital in order to hunt down the dreamy child killer on her own.

Sadly, as much as Jordan apes the Italian thriller stylings, he breaks a few of the rules, which results in a much less "thrilling" experience. In a giallo, the killer always wears a wide-brimmed hat and black leather gloves. This allows filmmakers to hide the identity (sometimes even the sex) of the killer. Although Jordan initially shoots his maniac with some mysterious angles, there is little point in concealing his identity. Hollywood's hardest working drug addict, Robert Downey Jr., turns out to be our psycho killer. I'm spoiling nothing by revealing this, which is part of the problem with In Dreams. The point of concealing the killer's identity is to increase the air of paranoia. Since we don't know what he looks like, he could be anybody already in the cast. Maybe it's really the cop. Maybe it's actually Claire's husband.

With In Dreams, we know even before the movie starts that no one around Claire is the psycho killer. For the most part, the killer's nowhere even near Claire. Where's danger in that? With at least two suicide attempts to her credit, Claire is far more of a threat to herself than our killer can ever be. The only tension-building device Jordan has is all that spooky dream imagery. Again, it does little to increase the fear factor. We're not treading on Nightmare on Elm Street territory here, so we know the scary dreams Claire keeps having can't actually hurt her. In fact, there isn't even much mystery to them, since the name and location of the strange flooded city is explained even before the credits roll. Normally, every giallo has some half-remembered bit of information--usually relating to the killer's childhood--which has great bearing on the current situation. Not so here. I kept waiting for it to be revealed that the killer was enacting some elaborate revenge on those who did him wrong, but nope--he's just killing little girls because he's nuts. I kept waiting for it to be revealed that Claire was actually the killer's long-lost sister, but nope--no explanation at all for their mysterious psychic bond.

Annette Bening, a generally well-regarded actress, here allows herself the luxury of overacting. Although she stops short of Joan Crawford excess, much of Bening's performance--which veers between lung-lacerating emotion and giggling insanity--is pretty broad. Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, taps into his inner crack child to give a well-mannered nutball performance. It hardly needs to be said at this stage of his career that Downey does a nice job of playing absolute wackos.

Jordan is a talented director, but he probably should be working with more groundbreaking material. He does his best to jam In Dreams with creepy imagery and weighty symbolism, but it's all for naught. I'll admit, the underwater town does make for some pretty spooky visuals--but Argento did the same thing better in his film Inferno.

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