A craggy, towering island like something off the cover of a black metal album looms out of the fog. As the camera approaches, the monolithic image separates into slopes of trampled bracken, ruins leaning drunkenly around the dark mouth of a cave. Come True, Anthony Scott Burns’ hypnotic horror flick about teenage runaway Sarah Dunn (Julia Sarah Stone) and her participation in a mysterious sleep study, is best appreciated as a collection of images like its opening dream sequence, exquisite miniatures and CGI wedded seamlessly to create dense, engrossing dreamscapes where Silent Hill-esque monstrosities float frozen or move with such glacial slowness that the glide of muscle under skin is almost imperceptible, a haunting counterpoint to the film’s gorgeous close-up shots of eyes moving in REM sleep, eyelids twitching and bulging. It struggles with some of its more pedestrian material — exterior shots, extended dialog — but strong performances by Stone, Landon Liboiron, and others lever it effectively through even its least compelling moments.
The low-fi aesthetic Burns — also the film’s cinematographer — employs in his dream sequences injects just enough uncertainty into the obscure objects of terror and anxiety by which we drift as though on rails that even the slightest twitch or wriggle feels horrific. The film is constantly drawing us onward through manholes, ornate doors, and rough holes crusted over at the rims like picked-at scabs, pulling us deeper into its labyrinths of liminal institutional spaces where the accoutrements of daily life are warped into bizarre outsize equivalents. EEG leads become elaborate, padded suits somewhere between astronaut attire and full-body diaper. Television monitors trail arm-thick cables like umbilical cords snaking up through open air toward the suggestion of some vast, unseen machinery. This kind of sumptuous, thoughtful visual design makes some of the film’s visual shortcomings a disappointment, as when things take an incongruous and decidedly Spielbergian turn in a barefoot odyssey across an empty city. Come True rallies, but outside his tightly controlled sets and dream sequences Burns seems less able to compose such complex and intriguing imagery.
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As Sarah, Stone is vulnerable and baby-faced, a distressingly thin high school student estranged from her mother for unrevealed reasons and sleeping in public parks. Much of the film’s interpersonal conflict and connection takes this same vague approach, recognizable from the films of directors like Brandon Cronenberg and his and Burns’ mutual inspiration, the equally painterly but much less emotionally interesting Panos Cosmatos. Characters vanish into empty houses, never to be discussed again. Feelings of anxiety swell and fade.
When Burns settles down into exposition the spell of his camerawork sputters a bit, grinding against pat dialog and dull intro psych themes, but whenever things threaten to come off the rails an image like a dream-capture of Sarah and Riff’s (Liboiron) passionate kiss literally fusing their bodies into a bonfire of waving tendrils and gaseous swirls comes along to right it. After all this phantasmagoria the film’s final revelation feels somewhat superfluous, but the strength of Come True’s imagery, the power of its fleeting, almost frantic scares and the crushing anxiety its shadowy sleep paralysis apparitions engender will cling to you long after the credits roll and the light of the screen fades.