When it comes to independent or outsider horror films, one of three main themes is usually employed. If vampires and their supposedly sexy post-modern poses aren't used, zombies get the call-up and are required to fill the motion picture macabre void. And woe be the lowly filmmaker who dredges up that expositional dead horse known as the serial killer. The genre just doesn't need another skin-shaving, bloodletting bad guy with exaggerated Ed Gein tendencies taking up valuable entertainment space. With so many possible parameters to explore within the entire horror/thriller/fantasy dynamic, it's sad that so many first time filmmakers rely on these hoary old stalwarts to sell their scares. Not Jay Woelfel, however. The Ohio-based auteur abandoned the standard creature feature facets to delve into the realm of the human mind. His fascinating first feature film, Beyond Dream's Door, avoids clichés and formulas to bring the stunningly surreal world of nightmares into painful perspective. As a result, instead of the same old craven crap, we are privileged to see one of the late '80s best independent fright films.
Ben Dobbs has been having bad dreams as of late – unusual nightmares that are cyclical, blinkered, and unexplainable. The funny thing is, they are the first ones he's had since he was a kid. Hoping to seek some answers into what they mean, Ben hopes his psychology teacher, Prof. Noxx, can provide some insight. After reading what Ben has written, however, Noxx vanishes. As the dreams grow worse, Dobbs next seeks the support of teaching assistants Eric Baxter and Julie Oxel. Suddenly, they too find themselves trapped in Ben's lethal fantasy world, a place where forgotten visions seek their revenge and demonic forces feed off the living. Ben believes that if he can stop the evil, he will free the others. But this supernatural entity is crafty, using hallucinations and tricks to keep everyone off balance, and primed for killing. It's like the line from a poem playing in Ben's head says – Beyond Dream's Door is where horror lies. In this case, it's a shockingly true sentiment.
Part mesmerizing mindf*ck, part incredibly effective monster movie, Beyond Dream's Door is a purposefully obtuse offering from Indie artist Jay Woelfel, a film that tries with all its might to travel the tricky avenue inherent in any nightmare logic narrative. Ambiguous, insular, and asking as many questions as its answering, this intriguing movie is part experiment in storytelling, part gore-laden bloodletting. There are moments of psychological terror here, as well as sequences where brains are smashed, torsos are gashed, and vein vodka is spilled in bright red splashes. Considering that it was made in 1988, at the height of horror's obsession with gross-out physical effects, an outsider effort like Beyond Dream's Door becomes even more compelling. Woelfel, and his team of college age craftsman, have put together something that stands severed head and shoulders above the crude creature features of the decade, and argues that tone and mood can do as much for one's macabre as guts and grue. Add in some appealing performances, a visual style that keeps the audience glued to the edge of their seats, and an overall approach to the subject matter that mixes intellectualized and supernatural elements, and you have a wonderfully inventive and evocative effort.
Granted, a lot of post-modern audience members may have a hard time getting into Beyond Dream's Door, for reasons that have as much to do with their own expectations as they do the movie's style. In today's quick trick tendency toward appreciation, a film has to come out fast and furious or you risk loosing the horror geek crowd. They expect the killings to start quickly, narratives to flow non-stop, and need the overall action to be relentless and constantly revved up. They accept some fairly lame CGI as long as it's in service of a well-paced tale that uses the medium as a videogame like variation of entertainment. As a result, to them, Beyond Dream's Door will seem like drudgery. Like a layered puzzle box, each simple solution leading to another, more complicated, conundrum, Woelfel treats his viewers with a modicum of motion picture respect. He assumes that his characters will carry the opening complexities, and his filmmaking will move you through the far more structureless situations. There are indeed times when this film threatens to get bogged down in its own excesses, where plot twist number 12 runs the risk of shredding all the carefully controlled narrative threads. But thanks to his skill behind the camera, Woelfel keeps it together, resulting in an experience that's refreshingly smart and weighty.
This is not really an actor's film. Perhaps, a better way to put it is to call Beyond Dream's Door a re-actor's movie. Our three leads, all played by capable performers, never push the limits of their thespian skills. Instead, Woelfel uses them for exposition and emotion only. They are not around to underscore themes, create subplots, or symbolize certain social or psychological elements. Instead, they play pawns in Beyond Dream's Door's demented chess game, a competition between reality and fantasy for the soul of its situation. Indeed, if there is one minor flaw in this otherwise fine feature, it is something this critic likes to call the "mainstreaming" syndrome. One can easily envision this movie being made by some big time Tinsel Town studio, loaded up with superstar and/or celebrity names, and helmed by someone like David Fincher or Neil Marshall. This doesn't take away from Woelfel and his efforts – it merely emphasis the scope and reach of this low budget achievement here. Beyond Dream's Door is a lofty production with epic goals and even more outrageous ideals. It wants to explore the unexplainable and decipher the creative codes locked inside the human psyche. It views dreams as doorways as well as entities entitled to their own existence – and retribution. It's a story about Heaven and Hell, light and dark...but, mostly, it's a hefty highlight reel for an up and coming auteur that shouldn't still be stuck in camcorder land. While not quite a masterpiece, Beyond Dream's Door comes mighty close.
Offered by Cinema Epoch (and distributed by Koch Vision) this brand new director's cut of the film is given a decent DVD presentation. The 1.33:1 full screen image is overloaded with grain, and some of the scenes suffer from bad lighting or compositional complaints. Otherwise, this is a fairly uniform digital experience. The colors are nice and nuanced, the contrasts a little on the sharp side. Still, considering its budget and the resulting technical limitations, Beyond Dream's Door looks pretty good.
Since this is a movie that's more a terrifying tone poem than a full blown aural spectacle, the decision to remaster the soundtrack into a Dolby Digital 5.1 offering was wise. It allows the mood to surround and immerse the viewer, while dialogue is decipherable and easy to understand. The musical score, also Woelfel's work, is recreated in a stunning, sumptuous manner, and the overall sonic experience matched the movie's macabre ambience perfectly.
As they did with their release of Bleak Future, Cinema Epoch really outdoes themselves in the added content department. As part of this package, we are treated to two commentaries (Woelfel solo, and then a collection of cast and crewmembers) an isolated music track featuring all of the filmmaker's compositional cues, three short films (more than one functioning as the inspiration for the main feature) featurettes on the making of each one, trailers, deleted scenes, F/X tests, still galleries, and an 11 minute montage of material not used in the main motion picture. It's overwhelming at first, especially since Beyond Dream's Door is so purposefully oblique to begin with. Uncovering its secrets is a lot like learning how a magician manages his sensational slight of hand. Still, the commentaries are entertaining (Woelfel is more hands-on, while the cast and crew track is loaded with personal anecdotes) and the featurettes allow the now much older actors to highlight the pleasures and pitfalls of working on such ambitious projects. The shorts are interesting too, since they feature many of the sequences that would later be incorporated into Beyond Dream's Door, and Woelfel's participation acts like a primer to the barriers a college-aged filmmaker faces in the cutthroat world of independent cinema. Taken together, the DVD packaging for this amazing movie is second to none.
Beyond Dream's Door is a prime example of a plug-in movie. If you don't instantly take to the situations and the people populating them, if you're put off by either the mood or the mannerism director Jay Woelfel employs, if you need there to be more action and less atmosphere in your psychological thrillers, then you'll probably zone out after the opening act. But if you're someone who can appreciate carefully crafted and considered stories, if you don't mind multiple plot twists that constantly take the narrative in new and knotty directions, if professional acting and step-by-step explanations are not required for you to enjoy a terror title, then by all means, dim the lights and give this terrific film a spin. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating for its ambition and its nerve, Beyond Dream's Door proves that not every filmmaker in the mid-'80s was trying to find a way to mimic Freddy Krueger or The Evil Dead. That Woelfel hasn't gone on to become the next whacked out wunderkind of the new millennium is shocking. On the power of this film along, he argues for his place among the best of a borderline bumper crop. If you're looking for something sinister, suspenseful and surprisingly polished, just take a peek Beyond Dream's Door. But be warned – it's a troubling place to explore.