By Nicole Veneto
Come True squanders all of its narrative potential in favor of an awkward and poorly developed romance and a “twist” ending even M. Night Shyamalan would scoff at.
Come True, directed by Anthony Scott Burns, now available on VoD.
This week I have the task of evaluating Anthony Scott Burns’ second feature Come True, a stylish lo-fi Canadian horror film that has one of the worst and most cliche endings I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a shame because most of Come True feels tailor made for me: analog tech aesthetics, neon lighting, Jungian themes, a banging synth score, and an impressive lead performance by Julia Sarah Stone. But style and atmosphere only get you so far. Come True squanders all of its narrative potential in favor of an awkward and poorly developed romance and a “twist” ending even M. Night Shyamalan would scoff at. Still, there are elements of Come True that save it from being yet another incredibly stylish but ultimately substanceless low-budget horror flick, even if the ending feels like Burns is trying to troll the audience.
Stone plays Sarah Dunne, a sleep-deprived teenage runaway who enrolls in a mysterious sleep study for easy money and a safe place to crash every night. The exact circumstances behind Sarah’s homelessness are never explained, though it clearly has to do with her mother, whose numerous phone calls Sarah never answers. She routinely sneaks back home whenever her mother is away for a quick shower, a change of clothes, and a thermos of coffee. But, other than going to school and periodically sleeping over her friend’s house, Sarah’s living on the streets. To make matters worse, she’s having vivid night terrors of a dark, shadowy man with glowing eyes in a macabre 3D dreamscape straight out of Silent Hill. So when Sarah sees a flyer calling for sleep study participants, it seems like kismet. The promise of a warm bed and $12 an hour brings her to the local university where Dr. Meyer (Christopher Heatherington) and his research team have — unbeknownst to the study’s participants — made an unprecedented technological breakthrough: a machine that visually renders peoples’ dreams into black-and-white bitmap images.
Of course this covert experiment isn’t without undue side effects. After the first few sessions, Sarah’s nightmares begin to seep into reality, unnervingly depicted by Burns without, miraculously, relying on jump scares: shadows in the background take on humanoid forms and creep along the walls, and the film footage breaks out into dead pixels like a corrupted computer file. The effect is genuinely unsettling, as are the del Toro-esque dream sequences, all of which Burns himself had a hand in creating as head of the special effects team. The director did quite a lot for Come True: on top of directing, he serves as cinematographer and composer under his stage name Pilotpriest. For a limited budget production shot with a five-person skeleton crew, Come True is very visually ambitious, reminiscent of early-Cronenberg and Ken Russell’s Altered States. Burns is clearly a man of many talents; screenwriting, however, isn’t one of them.
Enter Dr. Myers’ scruffy graduate assistant Jeremy (Degrassi alumnae Landon Liboiron), who monitors the CCTV footage of the sleeping participants. He takes an wholly unprofessional interest in Sarah once her dreams reveal images of the sleep paralysis demon (a.k.a. the shadowy man), the real object of the study. Fortunately, Jeremy’s chivalrous fixation on Sarah isn’t (solely) out of an undue desire to fuck a high schooler; it’s revealed that he too suffers from sleep paralysis. In fact, he’s been monitoring his own dreams for the shadowy man. When Sarah (now experiencing nightmarish hallucinations and unexplained panic attacks) catches him following her around town like a creepy nerd, she threatens to report him and quit the study unless he tells her what they’re actually researching. This is how Burns sets up what’ll become the film’s central romance. It only gets more ethically questionable from here.
Fast forward half-an-hour to Sarah and Jeremy sitting in his car at a stoplight having a heart-to-heart. Jeremy says, “You’re very smart for your age” — girls, if someone ever says this to you, run — to which Sarah, conveniently and for the first time in the film, clarifies she’s eighteen. After staring into each others’ eyes for a spell of time, the scene immediately cuts to her and Jeremy having sex in his apartment. It has all the comedic effect of cutting to the title card in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and none of the emotional resonance Burns seems to be going for. I’m not necessarily opposed to the romantic turn in their relationship had it been written better (Stone and Liboiron do work well together). But, again, a graduate student low-key stalking and having sex dreams about a high schooler is super suspect.
It’s the last two minutes of Come True that really beg the question as to whether or not Burns had anyone look over the final draft of his screenplay. In the final scenes, Sarah wakes up in a blue bathroom to discover she’s gouged Jeremy’s eyes out and has grown vampire fangs. Her phone rings on the toilet and the text on screen reads something like, “You’ve been in a coma for eight years. We are trying a new technique to reach you. Please wake up.” Roll credits! Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme! No, you didn’t miss any hints that Sarah’s been in a coma the whole time or that what we initially took for reality was, to quote the great philosopher Biggie Smalls, “all a dream.” A second viewing isn’t necessary. There’s nothing quite as frustrating to me as a movie with a lot of really great set-up and little to no pay-off; that alone often makes a film an irredeemable disappointment. Yet this wrap up didn’t leave me feeling angry or like I had wasted my time. I was actually kind of amused it had the gall to end as it did.
It’s clear where the film goes off the rails. Ironically, given a few simple tweaks to the screenplay, Burns could easily have made both the romance and the uber-cliche twist work. Still, Come True is a lot more inventive than most low-budget horror films today, even if the ending is far from being a dream denouement.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.