Friday, September 30, 2016

#241: Beyond Dream's Door (Jay Woelfel, 1989)

Jay Woelfel's feature film debut, Beyond Dream's Door, is a fascinating regional indie with some serious flaws, an intriguingly unconventional narrative, and a few genuine scares. It's easier to admire than enjoy, and I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but Woelfel is really going for something unusual here, and he intermittently succeeds. This is a real A for effort, C for delivery kind of movie, kept afloat by its weirdness.
Beyond Dream's Door is about psychology student Ben Dobbs (Nick Baldasare). He's been having dark and disturbing dreams that seem to spill into his waking life, which is unusual since Ben hasn't been able to remember any of his dreams since the death of his parents several years earlier. Ben writes these new dreams down in detail and asks his highly unorthodox psych professor Noxx (Norm Singer) to read them over and see what he thinks. (An aside -- Norm Singer as Prof. Noxx is a hilariously weird over-actor, and I especially enjoyed his delivery of this line spoken to the prof's class of psych students: "Yesterday I promised to tell you about a case of major league insanity.") Prof. Noxx gets very excited about this dream diary, which bears striking similarities to a case from 20 years ago, and begins to work with Ben into the wee hours in a basement of the college's library. Ben also involves two grad student TAs, Eric Baxter (Rick Kesler) and Julie Oxel (Susan Pinsky) into his dream life, but things very quickly go awry when Ben's dreams invade the waking lives of everyone he talks to about them. Soon, the line between dreams and reality erodes, and the rest of the film takes place in that weird purgatory between the two consciousnesses.
Woelfel is really good at capturing a waking dream state, avoiding most movie cliches about dreams, and creating a weird, unsettling atmosphere with some nice shots and tricky camera movements that rise above his budgetary restrictions. Woelfel is not so good at finding actors who can deliver his material or special effects artists who can suspend disbelief, and the narrative occasionally drags.
Shot in Columbus, Ohio with assistance from Ohio State film students, Beyond Dream's Door's cast is made up of Woelfel's friends, most of whom have no acting experience, which makes for some rough viewing. If you read this site with any regularity, you know that I often champion nonprofessional acting, criticize the slick professionalism of a lot of Hollywood acting, and have real issues with what is characterized as "good" and "bad" acting in mainstream culture. Sometimes, though, people with no acting chops are just stiff, awkward, and hard to watch. That's the case with most of the people in Beyond Dream's Door.
Baldasare, in the lead role, is understated and not that bad but lacks charisma, Singer is terrible but compellingly strange, and Kesler, Pinsky, and most of the extras and bit players are pretty, pretty, pretty stiff (Larry David typed the end of this sentence). The special effects, too, are cheap and silly and look like some teens made them for a home movie, which means they're still about 89% more effective than CGI. These are genuine criticisms, but you know I always have a tender place in my heart for the cheap, awkward, homemade, and regional, no matter how good or bad. I salute anyone getting out there and making stuff outside of the Hollywood machine. This movie has plenty of problems, but it's unusual and personal and looks like it was made by real humans.
I haven't seen any of Woelfel's other films, but he's still at it, cranking out low-budget horror movies, sometimes straight to video, as director, writer, editor, and soundtrack composer. He even made an interactive, educational documentary about the Titanic for schools that was narrated by Patrick Stewart. Most of the actors never appeared in another film, but Susan Pinsky (not the wife of Dr. Drew, who is also named Susan Pinsky) went on to become a doctor and has a practice in Florida and one of the extras went on to write for Dora the Explorer.

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