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Somnium (2024) Review

Making its world premiere at this year’s Chattanooga Film Festival, Somnium, originally titled Alaska, is the first feature from writer/director Racheal Cain after a trio of shorts, Everything Beautiful, The Clancy Family Funeral Home and Roaddog. It’s a film about dreams, both literal and figurative, following Gemma (Chloë Levine, The Sacrifice Game, The Transfiguration) as, in the wake of a painful breakup, she decides to relocate to Los Angeles and pursue her dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune.

But, as we see in the montage that follows her arrival, that’s a dream that takes more than wishing on a star to make happen. Needing to pay the bills, she takes a job working nights at a sleep research company called Somnium as a sleep sitter, watching over the sleeping patients. It’s not glamorous, and the pay isn’t much, but it’s a job, and it leaves her days free to audition.

Somnium Billboard

Her co-worker Noah (Will Peltz, Exploited, InstaPsycho), the company’s dream designer, tells her it was founded by a renowned sports psychologist Dr. Katherine Shaffer (Gillian White, The Island, Welcome to Sudden Death) based on her Science of Winning program. In essence, it reprograms its subjects minds through their dreams to help them achieve their goals. And it’s his job to create the dreams that they’ll have.

That’s an idea that’s both fascinating and rather creepy, rewriting someone’s personality with synthetic, designer dreams. Not as creepy as what Gemma thinks she sees in one of the rooms one night, however. Something that might be related to a mysterious, and irreversible, procedure referred to as Cloud 9 used when the normal procedure sends a patient off the deep end rather than building their confidence up.

Cain weaves Gemma’s own dreams through this. They’re haunted by her ex, Hunter (Peter Vack, Brittany Runs a Marathon, M.F.A.) and memories of life in the small town she left behind. It’s a sharp contrast to life in L.A. and Brooks (Johnathon Schaech, Day of the Dead: Bloodline, The Night Clerk), a potential love interest.

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And, while it may have taken her six years, the flashback scenes were shot in 2018, Cain has indeed made a film that is frequently scary. And Gemma is forced to face her fears in a trippy final act that shares some DNA with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Come True and a few other films before arriving at a deliberately ambiguous ending that can be interpreted any of several ways.

In August 2011, when my first love broke up with me right before college graduation, I sat on the shadowy curbside outside his house and made a promise to myself. I’d pick myself up, move to LA, and do the only thing I knew how: I’d make a scary movie. All I knew then is that I wanted to make ‘a scary movie about facing fears’. Something I hadn’t seen before: a beautiful horror film.

Racheal Cain

Apart from directing, Cain was also the film’s production designer. And, along with cinematographer Lance Kuhns (Samantha Rose, Long Gone By) and set decorator Claire Kirk (John Bronco Rides Again) creates an atmospheric stage for the cast to perform on. The clinic has a sinister high-tech look to it, with the soft glow of the sleep chambers giving way to long dark corridors, and the run-down apartment building Gemma calls home looking like it should be haunted, or at least have a killer stalking its halls.

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Despite their top billing, Grace Van Dien (V for Vengeance, Awaken the Shadowman) and Johnathon Schaech don’t have a lot of screen time, although they do well in their roles. It’s Levine who carries the film, and she does it well, portraying someone who is struggling not to lose faith in herself as she tries to make her dreams come true. Peltz comes off a bit bland in a role that had a lot of potential both in terms of Noah’s character and his job, but ended up badly underwritten.

Racheal Cain has delivered a promising first feature with Somnium. One that integrates a drama about the price of our dreams with medical horrors, while reminding us that the worst monsters are usually the human ones.

Somnium will be playing the festival circuit, you can check its Instagram account for announcement of future showings.

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