Writer: Catherine C Pirotta, Clyde Ware
Producer: Stephane Mermet
Cast: Dario Deak, John Colton, Penny Drake
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: screener
Never judge a book by its cover, they say. And never judge a movie by its screener. When Catherine Pirotta sent me a copy of her feature Dreamkiller, it was a CD-R with the title written on it - and that normally means something enthusiastically low-budget, so that’s where I set my expectations.
To my surprise, this turns out to be a fabulous-looking, thoroughly professional movie which could pass for a studio picture. It has an original, clever storyline and well-developed characters. However, to be completely honest, it’s one of those no-hang-on films. In other words, the plot makes sense while you’re watching (and enjoying) the movie but, examining it in retrospect - for example, in preparing to write a review - you start thinking “No... hang on...”.
Dario Deak, who was born in Sarajevo when there was still such a country as Yugoslavia, plays Dr Nick Nemet. He has an eyebrow thing going on that makes him look distractingly like Gary Graham from Alien Nation, except I realised this couldn’t be the guy from Alien Nation because he’s too young. People shouldn’t look like other people unless they’re actually related to them, in my view. Deak had a bit part in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and starred in The Asylum’s Universal Soldiers.
Nemet is working with Dr Stalberg (John Colton: Cheerleader Massacre, Supergator) on some sort of secret, Government-funded psychological experiment variously called FRIT or FRITT, depending on which document we’re looking at. This is ostensibly research into overcoming phobias which gives the name a whole extra level, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Because ‘frit’ means ‘frightened’ in some parts of Northern England. There was a famous incident in Parliament years ago when Mrs Thatcher (originally from Grantham in Lincolnshire of course) called another politician ‘frit’ and neither he nor the soft, Southern media types reporting the exchange knew what it meant.
Before we meet Drs Nemet and Stalberg there is a prologue in which a guy called Brian Carter (Brent Stevens: Diary of a Serial Killer) commits suicide in the shower by putting a gun to his temple. I suppose that is at least considerate because a shower cubicle will contain the blood and brains which can all be washed off and swilled down the plughole. Mind, wouldn’t the bullet crack the tiles? But anyway the reason this prologue stands out is because it takes place, according to the caption, on 17th February 2004 - my 36th birthday.
When you consider how many films I’ve seen and how many of those had date captions, isn’t it weird that I’ve never before seen one where the action (or at least, the prologue) took place on my birthday? Wow.
The FRIT(T) project involves playing a sound through headphones to an experimental subject which induces their particular fear - makes ‘em frit - then playing another sound which counteracts that fear. It’s sort of pavlovian, I suppose. But things hit a problem when two of the five experimental subjects are murdered within a short space of time. In neither case is there evidence of a break-in or has anything been stolen.
Nemet is questioned about the first murder because he and the victim had briefly dated, and he isn’t able to give a good alibi because he went to a bar that night, got drunk and picked up a hot blonde. In the morning, he had some sort of psychic vision in the shower and fell over and cracked his head on the bathroom floor, meaning he can’t even remember the blonde, let alone the bar. He is treated in hospital and released into the care of Dr Stalberg.
When the second victim, a famous classical pianist, turns up similarly dead, Nemet alerts Officer DeFour (Penny Drake: Necrosis, Zombie Strippers, Star Chicks) who has long red hair in a ponytail. Her cop partner Benett (Tyrone Power’s great-great grandson ... erm, Tyrone Power Jr.) - and they might actually be FBI, I’m not certain - warns her about getting too close to Nemet because there is clearly some sort of attraction there. The pianist, incidentally, has his hand forced into a waste disposal unit so presumably his phobia was losing the use of his fingers because it seems that each person dies according to their stated phobia.
Now, it turns out that Nemet, who lives alone but is guardian of his teenage sister (18-year-old singer Diandra Newlin in a completely irrelevant role), is worried about getting visions because his mother had visions and she is now in a mental hospital of some sort. And now he is getting visions, somehow seeing through the killer’s eyes as each person is killed, which could have been the set-up for an interesting cop show. Maybe it already has been - I don’t watch many American cop shows.
Benett orders a close watch on the remaining three FRIT(T) subjects: a pop singer (who barely features and dies quickly off-screen), an old woman who was a holocaust survivor and a young woman with a fear of heights. Each of the previous victims received a phone-call just before dying so a cop named Hendricks (half-Scottish black guy Todd Roosevelt who grew up in Garforth and used to write for EastEnders!) is assigned to baby-sit 82-year-old Mrs Bernstein (Jeanne Mount: A Gothic Tale). That age would make her about seven when Auschwitz was liberated which seems believable. Hendricks is told to listen in on phone calls, but when the phone goes and Hendricks picks it up, he is shot.
Mrs Bernstein then sees someone in full WW2 German dress uniform marching downstairs, who forces the old lady’s head into her oven and turns on the gas. (Is domestic gas poisonous in the USA? It used to be poisonous in the UK many years ago but nowadays the only way to kill yourself with a gas oven is to build up the gas concentration in the room to such an extent that you asphyxiate.)
Nemet starts snooping around the archives of FRIT(T), assisted by moodily sexy receptionist Rachel (Kelly Chambers: Reflections of Evil) who wears black polo-neck sweaters and has a whole fringe-and-bangs thing going on with her hair. Together they uncover the unpalatable truth: that FRIT(T) is derived directly from similar work carried out in 1944 by Joseph Mengele. This connects with a caption about Nazi experiments which appeared right at the start of the movie but seems to have no discernable connection with Mrs Bernstein.
They also find a video tape of a session with Brian Carter, the guy from the prologue who shot himself on my birthday. On the video tape, Carter is saying how happy he is and the time-stamp on screen identified the date as 17th February 2004. But Nemet finds a newspaper cutting in the files about Carter’s death, also dated 17th February 2004. How could he have been suicidal that day when they have video evidence that he was on top of the world?
But to me, that’s not the big question in this scene. To me, the question is how could the report of his death be in the newspaper the same day? If Carter died - by whatever means and whosever hand - on 17th February then the report could not be published in the paper before 18th February at the earliest. This is the sort of thing that the Inaccurate Movie Database likes to list in its ‘goofs’ section.
There is another apparent puzzle which could trap the unwary. The typewritten Nazi documents studied by Nemet have the date in English - “August 1944” but another shot shows a page of German text. But if it’s it German, how is Nemet reading it? (He may be fluent in German but that’s not been mentioned.) My assumption is that the file contains original 1944 German reports and near-contemporary English translations produced after the material was captured by the Allies. I think that’s entirely reasonable but it could have been made clearer.
About twenty minutes from the end of the film, Nemet is shot, apparently fatally but as there’s still so much time left to go we know it must just be a flesh wound, although there’s an awful lot of blood. Later, when he discharges himself from hospital, his blue shirt has a huge, deep red patch where the bullet hit him and this doesn’t really make sense. I couldn’t actually work out if that was the blue shirt he was wearing when he was shot or a hospital gown. If the latter, then what the hell has happened to his wound dressing to allow that much blood to seep out? I know he shouldn’t be indulging in strenuous exercise (like trying to uncover the truth behind unethical psychological experiments) but no bandaged wound should seep blood like that and, if it did, he would be pretty weak pretty quickly.
On the other hand, if that’s meant to be his shirt from the shooting incident... well, what’s the first thing that any paramedic does when dealing with a patient who has been shot in the chest? That’s right: grab a pair of scissors and hack their clothes out of the way.
So either way, that’s a continuity cock-up.
I won’t go into any more about the plot, partly because I don’t want to spoil things too much but mostly because, even at a day’s remove, it is slipping away from me like a dream. The narrative is running through my mind’s fingers faster and faster the more I try to figure it out. I’m really not sure what Dr Stalberg was trying to do or why, or what Nemet’s involvement with it all was. At one point the implication is made (I think) that Nemet owes Stalberg a favour because Stalberg successfully treated old Mrs Nemet’s visions. She is bright but weak in her first scene and bed-bound, asleep, possibly comatose in her second.
I can’t work out where Nemet’s own visions - which apparently he has never had before - fit into all this. What psychic link does he have to the patients and why? I don’t think he even has a vision for all five of the FRIT(T) patients, does he? And on occasions he has actual wounds which somehow match up with what happened to the assailant through whose eyes he witnessed the murder. Is he somehow affected by the work done at FRIT(T) or is this all just coincidence?
To be fair, the explanation of how the patients’ deaths are arranged and who is behind it all is structurally sound, even if the reason for it all is rather vague. And we do get to find out how it can be that Brian Carter apparently chose to end it all on a day when he was so happy and full of life. But that too is a big plate of how that would benefit enormously from a side helping of why.
Overall, I was satisfied with Dreamkiller (despite the rather naff 1980s title - there’s got to be something better, not least because no-one in this film kills people in their dreams). It’s a gripping, well-produced, original thriller with a psychological science-fiction McGuffin. The acting is uniformly excellent, the production design is good, the cinematography and sound top notch. I just wish it had eventually made as much sense as I initially thought it did.
The large cast also includes Monique Jones (The Asylum’s Frankenstein Reborn), Taryn O’Neill (Star Fury), John Savage (The Deer Hunter, Godfather Part III, Carnosaur 2, Club Vampire, Christina’s House, They Nest), Pepe Serna (Buckaroo Banzai, Deadly Swarm), the unlikely named America Young (the voice of Wendy in the first Tinker Bell DTV film), shorts director Roya Aryanpad and several actors who have been in shorts directed by Roya Aryanpad.
I initially suspected that the Clyde Ware who wrote this could not possibly be the same guy who used to write for The Man from UNCLE in the 1960s, The High Chaparral in the 1970s and Airwolf in the 1980s. Thirty years of credits? Then a gap from 1992 to 2009 when he suddenly reappears writing an enjoyably daft, low-budget sci-fi thriller? That why the Inaccurate Movie Database is so-called.
But you know what? It is him. This low-budget indie was written by a guy in his early seventies. Producer Stephane Mermet also produced two pictures written and directed by Clyde Ware in the early 1990s; now she, Ware and smouldering eyebrow boy Dario Deak are partners in a film production company. Crikey: The Man from UNCLE.
Clyde Ware (for it is he) was born in West Union, West Virginia, a town of just over 800 inhabitants which, in 2006, honoured its most famous son by declaring ‘Clyde Ware Day’ and screening his 1972 film No Drums, No Bugles. Props also to cinematographer Shaun O’Shaughnessy who shot a neat-looking, award-winning kids short called Alex’s Halloween and editor Richard Halse who cut Edward Scissorhands, Earth Girls are Easy, loads of other movies - and No Drums, No Bugles. Production designer Miguel Alejandro Gomez worked in the art department on Iron Man which is way cool, however minor his contribution.
Peruvian-born director Pirotta is a UCLA alumnus and filmed the movie partially on the university campus, with a largely student crew. The picture had a limited theatrical release in LA at the start of 2010 and ran for an impressive ten weeks (maybe more).
MJS rating: B
review originally posted 28th July 2010