Horsehead (2014, 1 hr, 29 mins)
I’ve always been interested in dreams and their meanings. Oftentimes I have tried to remember my nocturnal subconscious wanderings, and most of the time I can’t, but when I do, it is usually in reoccurring settings and always unsettling. Horsehead takes you one step further as lucid dreaming becomes a doorway to night terrors and family secrets.
Jessica (Lily-Fleur Pointeaux) is a young woman who suffers from terrible nightmares. In order to conquer them, she ends up studying the psycho-physiology of dreams. She is summoned back home because of her grandmother Rose’s death, and is more than uncomfortable when she realizes her grandmother’s body is kept in the bedroom next to hers for the wake. After a disturbing dream where Rose (Gala Besson) gives her a cryptic message, Jessica is prompted to use lucid dreaming techniques (where one is aware of what occurs in their dreams) to get to the bottom of what becomes a spiraling, surreal discovery of herself and her family secrets.
From the infamous Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Inception and The Cell, dreams have been great fodder for horror and the fantastical, portrayed as both campy and high art, but with Horsehead, it is almost a perfect balance of the absurd and artistic. I was first drawn in when I saw a film clip and heard the scoring by Benjamin Shielden. Jarring dub-step/breakbeat buzzing along with the voiceover of Jessica’s professor/boyfriend as he describes detailed instructions to lucid dreaming was something I hadn’t seen before. It was different for sure, and the skillful editing by Frédéric Pons made Jessica’s dreams all the more compelling.
Director Romain Basset did an amazing job leading the audience down the rabbit hole as Jessica’s dreams became more disturbing and revealing. His use of symbolism resonated with psychological significance as Jungian references involving animals and religion all came into play without being too overbearing, the most obvious being the ominously creepy Horsehead creature itself-the harbinger of death or perhaps a literal representation of a nightmare. Charles Perrault’s Red Riding Hood was also a prominent theme with Jessica, her grandmother and a wolf guide; a sinister interpretation of the popular fairy tale.
The sets were quite beautiful and simple, pulling from Henry Fuseli’s famous gothic “The Nightmare” painting. This eerie piece of art combined with the dark red and pale blue colour palette and stylish cinematography elevated the film’s old-school giallo feel. And speaking of giallo, Jessica’s mother Catelyn was played by Catriona MacColl, who was also in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, while her step-father Jim was played by Murray Head, the musician behind the 80’s hit “One Night in Bangkok”. All the performances were great, especially Pointeaux, who held her own with the veteran cast. My only issue with the film was Jessica’s grandfather Winston (Fu’ad Aït Aattou), and his role as, from what I can gather, a cult leader of some sort. There was a whole back story that I wanted to see more of, and perhaps the explanation of the age discrepancy between Jessica and her mother. I wasn’t sure if all this was meant to be ambiguous because of the dream logic, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it.
Romaine Basset’s first feature-length film was an artistic triumph. If you enjoy surreal, well-made independent horror, check out Horsehead.
Fangoria’s exclusive clip that drew me in!
And the official trailer: