If movies are to be believed, what happens after you fall asleep is so scary it's a wonder that anyone dares to nod off at all. Impossible Monsters is the latest thriller to exploit the terrors of nightmares, and it does so in uncommonly stylish fashion. While the film, directed and written by Nathan Catucci and receiving its world premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival, ultimately fails to successfully navigate its overly twisty narrative, it marks an impressive debut effort.
New York's City College, where many of the exteriors were shot, provides the perfect gothic, academic atmosphere for the storyline revolving around ambitious psychology professor Dr. Rich Freeman (Santino Fontana, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). When Rich loses a prestigious award to an arch rival (Chris Henry Coffey), he eagerly acts on a suggestion by the school's dean (Laila Robins) to conduct a study on dreams, nightmares and the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Since the prize is a large grant being offered by a major pharmaceutical company, the stakes, both academic and financial, are extremely high.
Among the group's participants are Otis (Donall O Healai), a talented but emotionally troubled artist whose paintings feature dark, fantastical themes (the film features numerous examples of his work, as painted by Wisconsin artist Gwen A.P., and they're suitably disturbing); the sexually provocative Jo (Devika Bhise); and Leigh (Natalie Knepp), with whom Freeman forms a romantic connection.
Not surprisingly, Impossible Monsters (the title stems from a quote by 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya) includes numerous nightmare sequences, including one in which a large snake slithers up a woman's body as she sleeps. These episodes, refreshingly using practical rather than CGI effects, are extremely well-staged and constitute the film's most arresting moments.
But the intensity falters when one of the study participants is murdered and the proceedings begin to more closely resemble a conventional whodunnit, complete with several suspects and a pair of suspicious detectives (one of them played by Geoffrey Owens, and it's a pleasure to see him onscreen these days after he was subjected to vicious internet taunts for the crime of taking another job to support his family while pursuing acting work).
Director/screenwriter Catucci provides haunting visual atmosphere throughout and has elicited fine performances from the ensemble composed of both fresh faces and such familiar character actors as Dennis Boutsikaris, as Rich's mentor. Fontana, usually seen in more comedic roles (he's starring in the upcoming Broadway musical version of Tootsie), effectively manages to make his lead character likeable as well as somewhat creepy. But you can feel him straining at times to tamp down his comedic instincts.
Impossible Monsters at times gets too baroque for its own good, straining for a Ken Russell-like hallucinatory style that it doesn't fully succeed in pulling off. But it's an admirably ambitious and accomplished debut for its tyro filmmaker who should easily move on to bigger things.