Odds are you have a friend who can’t stop telling you about their dreams. Whether out of a need to be interesting or a larger issue of oversharing, these dream sharers clumsily recap their eyelid movies for you without regard for your disinterest or confusion. “What did the horseman in my dream mean?” they ask. “Why was I supposed to follow the wolf?” You can shake them as hard as you want while shouting IT’S JUST A FUCKING DREAM but that won’t stop them. And as far as dream tellers go, Horsehead’s Jessica surely ranks as one of the most gung-ho.
Played with sleepy bewilderment by Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux, Jessica at least has a semi-valid reason for being so obsessive with dreams, what with the getting a degree in the study of them and all. Jessica spends the start of the film listening to a lecture by her professor, the world’s foremost dream psychologist, as he explains the common iconography of dreams, specifically the horse, a figure that has recently haunted Jessica’s own soon-to-be-prophetic night terrors. In medieval times, a horse in a dream was considered a bad omen, a harbinger of death, so I suppose Jessica’s vision of a terrifying horseman with oddly razor sharp claws is a bad omen taken to its extreme. When Jessica soon finds out that her grandmother has died under what turn out to be mysterious circumstances, she heads out to the family estate to take part in the wake, slumbering not-so-peacefully in the room next to grandma’s corpse, travailing the dreamscape for answers about her family’s dark history.
Awkwardly solicited as “a psycho-sexual” experience, Horsehead initially frames these dream sequences with an off-putting eroticism, the camera honing in on Jessica’s perfect pale flesh as she drifts off in the bath and descends into some Nine Inch Nails music video environment, walking up on her faceless grandma as she searches desperately for a key while the horsehead approaches. The film at first appears set to combine Silent Hill surreal terror with soft focus soft core but as Jessica acquires more artifacts to aid in her dream investigation, that sexual angle is dropped altogether, other than some pointless nudity here and there. The Silent Hill aspect becomes all the more important to keep in mind as the film sheds more traditional cinematic narrative in favor of a video game-like quest for key inventory and save points.
Confusing as its execution may be, Horsehead’s “twists” aren’t that hard to figure out if you pay attention and like the worst video games, the next step in the adventure is too obvious to be a challenge. Jessica quarrels endlessly with her mother (Italian horror legend Catriona MacColl), the root of the conflict coming from Jessica’s desire to know who her biological father is. She gets along much better with her stepfather Jim (Murray Head!) but he doesn’t have any answers to give her and merely serves as a buffer between the two bickering women. The conflict becomes much worse as Jessica starts questioning her mother using “evidence” she acquired in her dreams, turning every breakfast conversation into forced dream therapy. When Jessica starts to appear ill (probably from all the ether she’s huffing to keep herself unconscious), her mother rightfully worries, calling out the world’s creepiest family doctor and setting in motion a race against the clock as Jessica tries to solve her dream puzzle before her REM cycle is disrupted.
At a slim 81 minutes, Horsehead nonetheless still manages to feel like a drag, mostly because it repeats its imagery so frequently and awkwardly. Where other dream-centric works like The Fall or Holy Mountain are notable for the intensity and vividness of their surrealism, Horsehead is hung up on iconography, driving home the symbolism of its chosen images without much thought for art or showmanship. Outside of the Pyramid Head-referencing Horsehead of the title, there are key weapons and Red Riding Hood motifs and inexplicable lesbian trysts. There’s also plenty of heavy handed Old Testament horrors jutting up against random incest and an Inception-like fixation on a metronome, Jessica’s version of the spinning top. You’re meant to sympathize with Jessica as she uses dreams to work through ancestral trauma but it’s easier to sympathize with her mother, who’s quite sick and tired of being asked about keys every morning over OJ and toast.
Narrative issues would be easy to look past if the film at least had gorgeous artistry on its side but at best Horsehead looks like an overly ambitious thesis film. Outside of the ceaseless recycling of scenes and images, Horsehead is hampered by clunky dialogue and even clunkier scoring, Jessica’s descent into the dreamland soundtracked by a curious hybrid of brostep and outdated industrial music. Had it been pared down to short film length, Horsehead could have been more interesting, but stretched out into feature length it falls apart. This is Romain Basset’s first feature after a handful of shorts, so that makes sense, but even so, there simply isn’t much character or artistry on display here, not enough to even inspire some kind of “shows potential” addendum. Maybe it’s time for Basset to wake up and stop overanalyzing his dreams.
Horsehead is out now from Artsploitation Films.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover