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“Somnium” is an engaging, thought-provoking horror film that expertly blends the beauty of dreams with the haunting terror of nightmares.

Somnium

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In Somnium, the debut feature film from writer/director Racheal Cain, Gemma (Chloë Levine) is a struggling, wannabe actress who recently relocated to LA from a small nowhere town in Georgia. Besides an emergency fund from her parents, enough for a one-way ticket back home, she’s almost flat broke. Her attempts to find work or representation are futile.

After pounding the pavement all day, she sees a “Now Hiring” sign at an experimental sleep clinic called Somnium, run by Dr. Shaffer (Gillian White), a former sports psychologist.

The job involves overnight shifts watching the clinic and overseeing the sleeping patients housed in sensory deprivation pods, where images of their dream lives pipe into their unconscious brains.

When they wake after six weeks, their brains have been “programmed” to believe their dreams are inevitable, giving them the confidence and drive to make them a reality—the psycho-tech equivalent of manifestation (or the law of attraction).

When somewhat off-putting dream designer Noah (Will Peltz) explains this to Gemma, she asks the million-dollar question: “Does it actually change their reality or just their perception of it?” He responds with an equally provocative question: “What’s the difference?”

Gemma begins to learn more about her new job, including a controversial program called Cloud Nine that treats severely mentally ill patients with extreme and controversial measures.

She also begins to have strange experiences, including seeing unexplained things.

Meanwhile, we get flashbacks of her life back home and learn Gemma is reeling from losing her love, Hunter (Peter Vack). As everything in Gemma’s life begins to crumble, we can’t help but wonder how long it will be before she starts to covet the dream life promised by Somnium.

The film goes to great lengths to set up Gemma’s sadness, loneliness, desperation to make her dreams come true, and her real fears that they won’t come true despite all her best efforts.

She keeps getting close—a stellar audition for a big project and a new friendship with a wealthy older man (Johnathon Schaech) who says he sees something in her and wants to help her succeed. But as one heartbroken actress (Grace Van Dien) tells her at a party one night, “Close doesn’t count for anything.”

I loved the way Somnium subverted my expectations at every turn.

Because we are dealing with the world of dreams and psychological manipulation, the lines between reality and fantasy are continuously blurred, and we can never be quite sure how to interpret what’s happening.

It’s a film that forces viewers to confront a big question: If you could have everything you ever wanted, would you still want it if it wasn’t real? And what if you get everything you want only to find it’s far from the dream you imagined?

Despite being frequently dreamy and emotionally resonant, Somnium is not without its fair share of scares.

The clinic itself harbors a sinister presence with its long dark corridors and hidden secrets, reminiscent of a creepy morgue or mental hospital.

Gemma frequently encounters nightmare creatures, and the creature design is fantastic, often reminding me of the kind of twisting, eerily beautiful humanoid deformities found in Silent Hill.

SOMNIUM works on every level as a thought-provoking horror film, a compelling sci-fi mystery, and a resonant drama about hope and disillusionment—and the intersection between the life of our dreams and the life we’re meant to live.

Gemma is a woman who dreams of having star power. The actress who plays the aspiring actress, Levine, lights up every frame of the film with the kind of magnetic appeal and undeniable “it girl” quality that makes it hard to imagine Gemma can’t make her dreams come true; Levine herself is every bit the star.

The ending is wonderfully satisfying, even if its ambiguity may frustrate some viewers.

For this viewer, I found it to be a masterclass in keeping the audience guessing—giving them plenty to chew on and dissect without leaving them dangling.

Cain says she set out to make a beautiful horror film about facing fears, and she succeeds in spades.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4
SOMNIUM was screened for this review during its World Premiere at the Chattanooga Film Festival 2024.  

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