Once you get your head around the idea that this first feature from screenwriter, producer, director Danny Villaneuva Jr is not a scarefest or gorefest or even a horrorfest, it’s easy to settle into this thoughtful, sombre and often melancholy take on grief, loss and the difficulty of letting go of those who are taken from us too soon.
I DREAM OF A PSYCHOPOMP is an anthology film comprising three individual episodes that are told through the device of an overarching or wraparound story about Kerry Reynosa (Elohim Peña) a young man who crashes his car into a lamppost on the way home from a celebration of the first anniversary of his wedding, killing his wife Evelyn (Kulani Kai). From the moment of her funeral, he begins to have vivid dreams of Evelyn in torment and starts hearing her voice from beyond the grave – or, as it happens, from beneath the freshly dug soil of her grave itself. Why? Because she is struggling with the process of leaving her life behind and entering the great beyond. Clearly, she’s in need of a psychopomp.
Psychopomp may sound like a word invented in the sixties but in fact it comes from the mythology of ancient Greece; a kind of spiritual guide to the afterlife, a handler who helps to orient the newly deceased into understanding what comes next. But in Kerry’s dream we see Evelyn, bathed in purple mist, repel the efforts of the psychopomp to assist – in fact, in this film, purple seems to be the Production Designer’s colour of choice for the spirit world of this psychopomp who also goes by the name of Charles (Steven Alonte). Charles believes that the manner in which Kerry is seeing and hearing his dead wife indicates that the widower has psychopomp potential and since his own attempts to help Evelyn have failed, he determines to enlist Kerry who, as he says, may be the only one who can help her. But Kerry is a novice to this game (and still, of course, well ensconced on the mortal coil). So, Charles offers three stories that might help him understand. And so, we have our anthology.
In episode one, Spellbound High Monster Hop, Caroline (Fiona Rose) is being teased by her friends over her hesitation in asking heartthrob crush Lonny (Easton Michaels) if he has a date for the dance. But something more than teen romance is going on here and the nicely shot fantasy dance sequence leads this story to a tragic conclusion that is subtle and foreboding rather than the kind of in-your-face approach it could have been.
In episode two, Answers, the comically named Carl Crimwood (Peter Knox) is in the custody of Detectives Scott Redmayne (Dan Davies) and Ashur Nassar (H. Adoni Esho) but what he’s being questioned about is not comical at all. Crimwood is a child abductor, and the cops are making no headway with getting him to say where the body of a missing boy can be found. Enter Deena Swann (N. Meridian) a kind of empath who the cops use to break suspects who wont talk. This is the strongest and most compelling of the three stories, building good tension between Swann and Crimwood as she draws out of him more than he wants to give. It also has the strongest ending that comes about after a twist that I doubt you’ll see coming.
Finally, in episode three, Until Forever, Adriano (Ben Shaul) is an immortal who suffers from ennui and is resentful of the gift of eternal life. He’s visited by a young girl, Elayna (Jillian Lebling) who has the opposite problem and is hoping that Adriano might be able to provide her with more life than circumstances have allowed her. It’s a clever story that, like the rest of the film, is more about the dilemma at its heart than it is about supernatural or horror tropes.
And that’s the strength of the storytelling in this film; it’s about drawing on the emotional content that surrounds death rather than cheap frights and monster suits. It’s more Twilight Zone than Tales From The Crypt. Its weakness, though, as is often the case with anthology films, is in the connecting tissue. The prompts for the stories are inconsistent, sometimes coming from Charles, the psychopomp himself, but other times coming from the encounters Kerry has with the people he meets in the cemetery where his wife is buried. (he seems to there a lot!) This means the film doesn’t always have a clear connection between the psychopomp and the three stories. And this extends in the reverse. As compelling as the stories are, it’s not always clear where the role of the psychopomp fits into them. In the end, it feels like the opportunity for the three stories to enhance the power of the wraparound story is missed.
Nevertheless, it’s a film well worth your time. It’s well cast and well acted and the production values and camerawork from a creative team who work across the four episodes is highly effective. Like all anthologies, some stories work better than others, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something to your taste here (unless, of course, you’re looking for mindless violence and a gory splatter movie). You’d also be hard pressed not to find something to think about in these stories.
I DREAM OF A PSYCHOPOMP is produced by How Bizarre Pictures which, itself, is the grown-up version of web channel How Bizarre which was developed by Villanueva as a way of distributing horror shorts, docos and cartoons. Obviously, this film is a step up for both his filmmaking career and his production company. Both seem well worth watching for where they go next.
I Dreamed of a Psychopomp is now available on the Terror Films YouTube channel.