Neil Jordan is not usually considered a horror movie specialist, yet his career started with a horror pictue, The Company of Wolves (1984), and has included Interview with the Vampire (1994), In Dreams (1999), and Byzantium (2013). We might reasonably throw in the haunted house comedy High Spirits (1988), and note the elements of the fantastic in The Butcher Boy (1997) and Ondine (2009). All in all, that gives Jordan more horror movie cred than a number of people we think of as genre specialists. With this is mind, his much-maligned In Dreams is not really the aberration in his filmography it’s often seen as — nor is it the disaster (at least artistically) that it’s been painted. Oh, I’m not trying to make a case for it is a perfect film. It most certainly isn’t that. It has unnecessary padding — I’ve no clue what the business of Aidan Quinn’s offscreen affair has to do with anything. It has some pretty silly scenes — the apples in the garbage disposal, the highway accident, for example. But it also has a strange beauty, an intensely creepy atmosphere, and a grandly operatic feel.
I find it interesting that much of the derision In Dreams originally received had to do with its apple motif — especially since it came right after The Butcher Boy, a film that starts with a disturbed boy stealing apples. In both films, apples function as a reference to Original Sin, though in slightly different ways. I don’t know if Jordan is religious, but his films are full of religious — especially Catholic — symbolism. One of the first things we see in In Dreams is the image of a very large crucified Jesus being washed away by the flooding of a town as the result of a dam project. Yes, it’s simply an image that carries an immediate charge to the western mind, but it serves to suggest the undercurrent of sin and redemption to follow, as well as the film’s pre-occupation with Original Sin and the destruction of an Eden-like existence for Claire Cooper (Annette Bening).
The film’s story — about the dreams and visions that tie Claire inexorably to the serial killer, Vivian Thompson (Robert Downey, Jr.) who murdered her daughter — was adapted by Jordan and Bruce Robinson (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) from a novel called Doll’s Eyes by Bari Woods (whose Twins had been the source of David Cronenberg’s 1988 Dead Ringers). All in all, the screenplay — apart from some plotholes concerning Thompson’s secret lair (where do those apples come from?) — works quite well in the way it keeps the viewer uncertain on the question of whether or not Claire is really onto something with her visions, or if she’s just insane. It helps that the film never tips its hand as to exactly what is and isn’t real.
This, however, seems to be less what interests Jordan — despite the fact that he and Robinson construct a tidy mystery — is less the story than the atmosphere of the individual scenes. The film opens with the weirdly beautiful, haunting images of the submerged town being explored by divers in search of one of Thompson’s victims, but it soon goes into the almost magical fairy tale world of Claire and her husband, Paul (Aidan Quinn), and daughter, Rebecca (Kate Sagona). This idyllic world is already threatened by the mystery of the divers on the lake, but will soon be more directly disturbed by Claire’s prophetic dream, the discovery of Paul’s infidelity, and the murder of Rebecca. But it all works on atmosphere — and that’s true of the increasingly disturbing visions and events of the film as it plays out. Regardless of how one feels about the movie on any other level, it’s pretty hard to deny that it’s a masterpiece of atmosphere by a masterful filmmaker.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen In Dreams Thursday, May 1 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.