William Malone is one gutsy individual. He entered the horror mainstream with the entertaining but forgettable remake of House on Haunted Hill and the painfully unforgettable Fear Dot Com. After turning out a solid episode (The Fair Haired Child) for Masters of Horror, he must have realized that having creative control of his next project was the way to go. This is the only explanation for his choice to put up his own funds (along with a partner) to completely finance Parasomnia outside the studio system. It was a gamble but having seen the finished product, I have to say that it paid off. Parasomnia is a compelling throwback to the horror films of the 80's where plucky youngsters would dare to go up against larger than life villains.
Laura Baxter (Cherilyn Wilson) has trouble sleeping. Actually, her trouble is that she can't stop sleeping. She has a form of parasomnia which leads her to spend most of her time asleep in a hospital bed. Her precious few waking moments are unpredictable and confused but at least they provide a respite from her vivid nightmares. You see, someone is inside her head. He assaults her mind with visions of a terrifying wasteland filled with mirrors and small scurrying creatures that look like Gollum's inbred cousins. His name is Volpe (Patrick Kilpatrick) and he happens to be a resident in the psych ward next to her room. Having seen the power of his mesmerism in the opening scenes of the film, there is no doubt that Volpe is capable of convincing people to do whatever he desires.
Fortunately for Laura, her Prince Charming is about to enter the equation. Danny (Dylan Purcell) is an art student who stumbles upon Laura when he visits a friend in the same hospital that she and Volpe are staying in. Despite meeting her while she's in sleep mode, Danny is immediately taken with her. A flashback suggests that they may have met each other as kids. When Laura is entered into a new experimental study, Danny finds his adoration at an all time high and as a result kidnaps Laura in order to save her. He is oblivious to Volpe's stake in Laura but this is soon rectified as Volpe makes his presence felt in Danny's life. Bloodshed, mayhem and mind-control follow as Danny and Laura evade Volpe's murderous advances while a dogged cop (Jeffrey Combs) chases them down.
When I said that Parasomnia was a throwback, I meant it in the best way possible. It looks past the cliches of modern horror to get back to basics. There is no self-referential mockery. The protagonists aren't over-stimulated jerks who deserve whatever comes their way. The visuals don't look like they've been grimed up by a third-rate David Fincher clone. While there are definitely a few gore effects on display, they pack a punch rather than deadening the senses. Malone gets a lot of things right with Parasomnia but his biggest accomplishment is the tone of the film. He presents Laura's story like a twisted fairy tale that has come unhinged in space and time. This feeling of timelessness is aided by the 60's garage rock soundtrack and by the fact that the antagonist is a mesmerist. That's just not something you see much anymore. There's also the matter of Laura's nightmarish dreamscape as manufactured by Volpe. They are surreal and precise in ways that tweak one's curiosity while urging escape at the same time.
While most of the actors are quite convincing, I have to single out Patrick Kilpatrick and Cherilyn Wilson for their standout performances here. Kilpatrick dominates his scenes as Volpe with a commanding presence that oozes menace while remaining infuriatingly calm. To top it off, his deep, intimidating voice is the sort that immediately sets one on edge. Standing up to him, in more ways than one is Cherilyn Wilson. This represents one of her first leading performances although you wouldn't guess that based on her handling of Laura's character. Wilson has the tough job of playing a scared young woman who occasionally turns into a homicidal puppet under Volpe's command. Balancing childlike innocence with terrifying rage is a tall order but Wilson takes it on like a seasoned pro. Compared to her, Dylan Purcell's portrayal of Danny seems amateurish. Although Danny is supposed to be a bit of a shy guy, Purcell underplays him to the point that his oddness occasionally morphs into creepy awkwardness. Jeffrey Combs gives his minor role of the quirky cop enough noir-ish flair to make him memorable.
Visually speaking, the film is in keeping with Malone's twisted fairy tale template. Working with cinematographer Christian Sebaldt, Malone has laced the proceedings with enough ominous angles and off-kilter shot compositions to make us uneasy. The set design goes one step further by tying unexpected techno elements into gothic scenarios. This is seen during the creepy finale where Volpe stages a macabre puppet show for Danny's benefit. Despite operating with a lower budget than usual, Malone delivers a few convincing gore set pieces. Volpe turns one character into a fleshy hand-puppet while another is gutted so that their intestines start to spill out onto the ground (umm...sausages). One area where Malone stumbles a bit is in making the romance between Danny and Laura believable. Danny's sudden attraction towards Laura is hard to swallow. While their childhood flashback helps to provide some foundation, it doesn't do much for the icky taste in my mouth when Danny undresses a freshly kidnapped and sleeping Laura in order to give her a sponge bath.
Despite a few missteps with the romantic angle and a lackluster performance from the male lead, Malone has delivered a horror movie that breaks away from current trends to develop a darkly satisfying fairy tale. By financing half the film out of his own pocket, he has clearly put his money where his mouth his. If you are in the mood for something that isn't a sequel, prequel or remake, may I suggest you do the same?
The lengthiest interview is with Malone who discusses his points of inspiration for the film including the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Svengali. He also talks about the casting process and working with cinematographer Christian Sebaldt. He comes across as an amiable and pleasant guy which is good because we still have an audio commentary waiting for us. Dylan Purcell's interview focuses on working with Malone and reveals that he has more personality than one would have expected just from watching the film. Cherilyn Wilson's interview shows a young lady handling her first real leading role and navigating the difficulties of filming scenes featuring gore and nudity. In his interview, Jeffrey Combs just comes across as a quirky guy with a lasting affection for film noir. Timothy Bottoms, who plays Laura's doctor, gets to discuss his film career while Patrick Kilpatrick shares a funny story about hitting on Dylan Purcell's mom. From a technical standpoint, we get to hear from composer Nicholas Pike and VFX supervisor Gene Warren III about the challenges of working on a low budget film.
3 Deleted Scenes (12:15) prove to be a mixed bag. While 2 of them don't add much to the film, the third represents the extended original black and white opening of the film which got reworked into the flashback scene. As presented here, the original opening would have been a softer way to open the film but it would have been a better bookend than the current opening which just goes for a shock to the system. A Stills Library is exactly what it sounds like while The Plagues Music Video (2:45) gives us a chance to listen to a song by Malone's garage band from the 60's while clips from the movie play over it.
Finally, we get to the Audio Commentary with Director William Malone. This is a fairly informative commentary. As I mentioned earlier, Malone is an amiable fellow with a healthy sense of humor which makes this a breezy commentary track to listen to. He describes his writing process of the film and notes that it came together while he was working on his Masters of Horror episode. There is some discussion of filming in and around L.A. on a budget with special mention of how the darker scenes were filmed. He gives credit to Polish surrealist, Zdzislaw Beksinski for designing the conceptual art that Laura's dreamscape was based on. Most importantly, he expresses his gratitude for his cast and crew who took major pay cuts in order to work on the film and turn out a polished final product.