Quick flick quiz: Name a feature film, by a name director, with established stars, that offers the deaths of all three members of a nuclear family at the center of the plot, the survival of a particularly nasty human representation of pure evil and an emotional tone that goes from grim to grimmer.
"In Dreams," director Neil Jordan's follow-up to last year's brilliant "The Butcher Boy," is the first and in all likelihood the last movie to boast those characteristics, none of which are particularly appealing.
Jordan's messy nightmare makes a loose fit with the category of psychological thriller, but achieves neither the genuine frights of Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" nor the freaky intensity of "Paperhouse," both fine specimens of the genre. This film, arty pretensions to the contrary, has more in common with "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and its cheesy horror kin than anything more sophisticated.
Annette Bening, fresh off interesting work in the mediocre "The Siege," initially is watchable enough as Claire Cooper, a young mother and free-lance artist tortured by a series of disturbing and wholly inexplicable dreams. Claire, her husband, Paul (Aidan Quinn), a 747 pilot, and Rebecca (Katie Sagona) once lived something of an idyllic existence. Mom helped their child rehearse lines for a school play while hanging out inside the family's rambling New England-style mansion, and dad and daughter romped in the field next door, sharing the fun of a remote-control airplane.
But those frightening, vivid dreams keep intruding on all that happiness. Even while making love with her husband during the afternoon, Claire is plagued by mind's-eye glimpses of a child being led through an apple orchard by an unseen stranger. Perhaps it's a psychic clue to the disappearance of a local girl. Then again, maybe the dreamer is going mad. Either way, it's driving away Paul, who admits to nearly starting an affair as a result of his wife's extended state of distraction. "If it's not one obsession, it's another," he complains. "You're gone."
Visions turn into horrible reality when Rebecca disappears into the woods during an elaborate, magical production of "Snow White." Claire melts into herself when realizing that a diving crew has discovered her daughter's corpse (Bening accurately conveys the emotional devastation of the moment) and literally goes over the edge, driving her convertible through a railing and into a river far below.
Six weeks later, home alone, she takes a major detour on the road to recovery. The dreams, now explicit enough to offer a close-up of the mystery psycho (a dazed and confused Robert Downey, Jr.), are followed by a series of strange incidents. She hears the sound of a child, and sees Rebecca's swing moving back and forth as if occupied. The boombox radio suddenly plays "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and, not much later, her computer screen takes on a life of its own.
Claire's descent into madness continues at a psychiatric hospital, where a kindly psychiatrist (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) eventually believes his patient's assessment of her problem. The killer, tied to his bed and left to drown as a child when his hometown was abandoned for use as a reservoir, later stayed at the very same mental ward where Claire is now confined. She traces the steps of his long-ago escape and helps assure the survival of Ruby, likely the next young victim. But not before other scary dreams come true.
Originally titled "Blue Vision," "In Dreams" is littered with implicit and explicit references to fairy tales, the Garden of Eden, New Age rebirth and Biblical angels. Too bad Jordan and his co-screenwriter Bruce Robinson didn't fully make use of those potentially resonant elements. The results might have been horror with an eerie edge instead of clumsily executed nonsense.