I Dream of a Psychopomp Image

Director Danny Villanueva Jr.’s elegant feature debut, the anthology I Dream of a Psychopomp, delivers some much-needed dignity back into the horror genre. It opens on an old brick building, and then the camera pans over to the scene of a horrific car accident. Kerry (Elohim Pena) is dazed and staggering over to his wife, Evelyn (Kulani Kai), lying in the wreckage. At the funeral, Charles (Steven Alonte), the funeral director, sits Kerry down to tell him some tales about lost mortality.

Charles tells the story Spellbound High Monster Hop. It centers on high school students Caroline (Fiona Rose), Ivan (Coda Li Marcus), and Mel (Olivia Tennison) at a Halloween dance gone wrong. The next tale, Answers, is about police detectives Redmayne (Dan Davies) and Nassar (H. Adoni Esho) questioning suspected child murderer Peter (Carl Crimwood) with the help of psychic Deena (N. Meridian). In Until Forever, a little girl, Elayna (Jillian Lebling), seeks out a meeting with a vampire named Adriano (Ben Shaul). In between the segments, Kerry tries to reach out to Evelyn in his dreams to comfort her, following the direction of the psychopomp (Steven Alonte), the shadowy guide to the land of the dead.

I Dream of a Psychopomp is a true class act. Villanueva Jr. has given the audience the white linen tablecloth treatment on the budget of an orange Aldi shopping bag. From the mournful piano score to the eerie lighting effects, the director always steers his production to a state of atmospheric refinement. He invokes the dark majesty of classical horror with its ornate castles and well-groomed fiends. This is something we haven’t seen in a long time, as horror has shed a lot of its inherent sophistication over the decades in favor of a wet, brutal ferocity. I remember back in the 1970s when the vampire was the best-dressed guy onscreen and washed real well. These days most vampires have werewolf faces and dress in rags or, worse, Old Navy. Villanueva Jr., the editor, contributes to this elevation of the material by putting these unusual yet effective cuts in unexpected places.

“…the funeral director, sits Kerry down to tell him some tales about lost mortality.”

Villanueva Jr.’s screenplay reinforces this fancy strategy by eschewing the cheaper thrills of blood and body count, instead indulging in morbid reflection. The segment by J. Anthony Ramos achieves the excellent feat of telling a vampire story without ever using that word. It is a delicate balancing act that will defy many expectations, but that is what is so damn refreshing about this picture.

The acting in I Dream of a Psychopomp is uniformly excellent. Pena manages to be heartbroken without being a soggy bitch about it. Meridian is a badass psychic. It seems strange to say Crimwood is believable as someone who rapes and murders young boys, but here we are. Lebling and Shaul’s exchange totally captures the entire feel of the picture. It is believable and understated enough to keep the mood going.

A lot of the film was shot in Wisconsin, the cradle of the greatest regional horror films of the 20th century. From cult masterpieces like The Children to worldwide blockbusters like Giant Spider Invasion, Wisconsin has a rich legacy of independently produced fantastic cinema. Villanueva Jr. draws on this by utilizing weird landmarks in Kenosha as locations, including a theater where Lugosi performed and a funeral home down the street from where Orson Welles grew up.

I Dream of a Psychopomp is another excellent entry in the weird film legacy of the Cheese Head state. It’s sophisticated without being psycho-pompous. It is high time filmmakers summoned the elegance of yesteryear back to the horror genre. Villanueva Jr. allows horror to hold its head up high again, even if it is by the hair while blood drips from the severed neck.

I Dream of a Psychopomp (2022)

Directed: Danny Villanueva Jr.

Written: Danny Villanueva Jr., J. Anthony Ramos

Starring: Elohim Pena, Kulani Kai, Steven Alonte, Carl Crimwood, N. Meridian, Jillian Lebling, Ben Shaul, Fiona Rose, Coda Li Marcus, Olivia Tennison, Dan Davies, H. Adoni Esho, etc.

Movie score: 8.5/10

I Dream of a Psychopomp Image

"…allows horror to hold its head up high again..."

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