Things aren’t going well for high school student Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone): she’s avoiding her mother for reasons unknown, which means she’s alternating staying with her friend Zoe (Tedra Rogers) and sleeping in the park. She’s falling asleep in school, being mocked by classmates and her situation shows no sign of improving.
But most problematically, she’s having terrible nightmares.
The solution to her problems might just be a paid sleep study she attends at the university. Outfitted in retro-futuristic gear that looks like something Cronenberg would have designed for an Alien film, Sarah and a few others are monitored in their sleep by a team of graduate students led by Jeremy (Landon Liboiron) and the mysterious Dr. Meyer (Christopher Heatherington). But the purpose of the study and the motives of its handlers remain a mystery to Sarah, whose nightmares become progressively worse the longer she participates.
The nightmares in Come True are far and away its best asset. Unlike other films that use dreams to confuse their audience about what is real and what is fantasy, Come True is mostly transparent about when its characters are dreaming. There are a few exceptions as Sarah becomes sleep deprived and hallucinates a bit in the middle stretch of the film, but for the most part writer/director Anthony Scott Burns cues the audience that a nightmare has begun through the same repetitious techniques.
Each nightmare is filmed in the same way: a long take tracking shot forward through narrow, poorly lit hallways. Whenever this environment is revisited, however, it morphs or mutates; the shadowy figures lurking on the periphery are closer or they have become more contorted; and the landscape grows harsher. Accompanied by a rhythmic, pulsing, violin-infused score that is so powerful it elicits jump scares, these repeat nightmares always end just before the dreamer runs head-on into a dark, threatening figure.
The number of times this nightmare is revisited, as well as Come True’s repeated motif of characters hurriedly walking, biking, or running (almost always down a confined, enclosed space) gives the film propulsive, cyclical energy. These are characters in search of something – they’re not being chased or hunted like in other horror films; they’re trying to get answers before they fall back asleep and face a fresh round of night terrors.
Aside from the music stingers, the scenes when Sarah or Jeremy bolt upright from a nightmare are the closest that Come True gets to jump scares. What’s astounding about the film is the mileage it gets out of seemingly innocuous moments. In the film’s best sequence, a character is frozen in bed in terror, tears streaming down their face at a perceived threat, all while the practitioners of the study watch from a nearby room. The combination of editing, lighting and music all crescendo in a scene that has no business being terrifying. And yet, prepare for raised hair and shivers down your spine.
Come True has unnerving energy to it because the characters are seemingly on an inevitable collision course with the cause of their nightmares. By the time Sarah, Jeremy and Jeremy’s co-worker on the study, Anita (Carlee Ryski), embark on a somnambulist expedition to destinations unknown in the third act, Come True feels like it’s building to a massive conclusion.
And this is why the film’s conclusion is so devastating. The reveal of what is happening and why feels disappointingly undercooked and, even worse, casts a shadow on everything that has come before. After all of the anticipation and hype, Come True’s conclusion is both anticlimactic and extremely unsatisfying. It simply doesn’t work.
The disappointment of this stumble, however, is forgivable because everything that comes before is so strong. Come True is a true artistic achievement: everything about the film’s playful use of neon colors, its retro-futuristic visual aesthetic, its synth-heavy score and its genuinely unsettling depiction of nightmares all combine to make the film a must-watch.