I Dream of a Psychopomp

I Dream of a Psychopomp TV/Web/NT, 2022, ¾ star

Pomp  and unceremonious

Dream is imaginative but amateurish

Exclusive to MeierMovies, August 16, 2022

After a limited festival run, Danny Villanueva Jr.’s debut feature, I Dream of a Psychopomp, has dropped on the Terror Films YouTube channel, with a release on other digital platforms to follow. And though the anthological, imaginative Psychopomp is a logical step in the director’s creative progression, the suspense-horror suffers from too little story development, too much ambiguity and an aura of low-budget amateurism.

Villanueva, who co-wrote the film with J. Anthony Ramos, is a Mexican-American filmmaker best known for How Bizarre, a web channel focusing on horror-themed shorts, such as the creepy Don’t Cry, Papa, from 2017. That short’s twisty, supernatural vibe informs Psychopomp, but moving from four minutes to 80 requires Herculean labors, and Villanueva, though seemingly well intentioned, gets lost somewhere in the stables.

Staying in familiar (short) territory, Villanueva has created an anthology or, more precisely, a collection of three vaguely related tales interwoven with and framed around a fourth. The connection between them is certainly intriguing: Kerry (Elohim Peña), while visiting the grave of his recently deceased wife, Eveyln (Kulani Kai), comes upon fellow weepers, all with a tale of death. There’s an educator grieving over a school shooting (or so we infer), a middle-aged man dredging up the sad memories of a child predator (Peter Knox) from his youth and a mother mourning the death of her terminally ill daughter. And all three contain a supernatural element that Kerry is somehow able to see, or at least relate to. In this respect, he is both the “dreamer” of the psychopomp and, by the film’s end, the psychopomp itself.

Frankly, though, most of my analysis is guesswork, as the movie borders on “art film,” a term I abhor because, of course, all film is art. What I’m saying – admittedly as inelegantly as Villanueva – is that Psychopomp is lacking a traditional narrative structure and embraces ambiguity when it should instead offer good old-fashioned, scary storytelling. At least the director has partially avoided the pitfalls of anthology films that lack a framing story and, therefore, lose you when lurching from tale to tale. In this respect, like Dead of Night (the 1945 granddaddy of anthology horrors), Psychopomp does build toward a climax – or at least would have if the writing and acting had been sharper, more developed, more dynamic and more frightening.

The film defines a “psychopomp” as a “guide of souls to the place of the dead” or “the spiritual guide of a living person’s soul.” And, fittingly, it features characters in need of guidance. (My favorite is the sick child who seeks a vampire’s bite so she can live forever.) But the movie itself also needs a guide. Without it, Psychopomp is left in cinematic limbo.

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