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by: Scott Renshaw

Somehow, there's something even more icky about an exploitative and routine horror film that tarts up its exploitation and routineness with plenty of style. Such is the case with Neil Jordan's IN DREAMS, a psychological thriller which lets its atmospheric creepiness disintegrate into a trite chase-n-terrorize puree. Annette Bening stars as Claire Cooper, a Massachusetts-based children's book illustrator with a picture-book life: lovely rural New England home, loving husband Paul (Aidan Quinn), beautiful young daughter Rebecca (Katie Sagora) and loyal dog Dobie. She also posesses a spark of psychic ability which she has had all her life, one which seems to be getting stronger as she has visions connected to the disappearance of a local schoolgirl. Then Rebecca is abducted, and Claire comes to believe that she is psychically connected to a serial killer -- and that the killer is similarly connected to her.

For a while, it looks like IN DREAMS is going to be a thriller of a different stripe, something as dramatically and visually compelling as it is viscerally shocking. Darius Khondji, the gifted cinematographer behind SEVEN, gives IN DREAMS the same menacing silver tint and twisted light, including an eerie opening underwater sequence in a submerged town. The story takes Claire on a descent into genuine madness, the kind that makes a character truly unpredictable and interesting to watch. Bening is a superb actress, and she makes the most of Claire fumbling for answers with the last shreds of her sanity. The script also presents the idea that the killer is a tormented soul who wants Claire to catch him, setting up a potentially complex relationship when they finally do meet.

Gradually, however, IN DREAMS starts to lose its way. Partly it seems rushed, with scenes slammed together too quickly to develop the necessary foreboding. Partly it seems sloppy, increasingly depending on ridiculous contrivances (Claire being confined in exactly the same room once occupied by the killer, for instance) and the blandly counter-productive analysis of Claire's psychiatrist (Jordan regular Stephen Rea, sporting a distracting accent). And partly it seems mean-spirited, using graphic murders for shock value or imperiled children for sympathy value, rather than building interest in the characters. Over its final 45 minutes, IN DREAMS begins a slow but steady descent from potent psychological thriller to careless mess.

And then, when Robert Downey Jr. finally appears as the killer Vivian, it careens out of control entirely. Decked out in flowing red tresses and whispering in an effeminate drawl, Downey exercises every ghastly overacting muscle in his body simultaneously. To be fair to Downey, the role is a serial killer cliche -- he's a Norman Bates momma's boy with serious gender role issues -- without a remotely sympathetic quality, dashing hopes of a mind-game showdown into the rocks. Instead it's all guns and sharp objects, running and screaming, until a bleak, unsatisfying and confounding resolution. It's a huge disappointment coming from Neil Jordan, a film-maker who has consistently made films that defied expectations -- THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, THE CRYING GAME, THE BUTCHER BOY. In a sad way, that's exactly what he does here. Just when you expect IN DREAMS might turn out to be a memorably disturbing horror film, it turns out to be a gutless, nihilistic tease.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 daydream believers: 4.


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