Fantastic Fest Review: HORSEHEAD Is Disappointingly Literal

For a French film about lucid dreams, this flick is not nearly abstract enough.

The opening of Romain Basset's Horsehead features a voiceover that explains the symbolism of horses in dreams -- if you feel like you've heard this one before it's because you definitely have. Rob Zombie's Halloween sequel also featured an explanation of horse symbology in dreams in its opening. They symbolize both mothers and death, a way to cross over to the afterlife.

Conceptually, Horsehead is a film built on the lucid dream experiences of Jessica, a young woman who returns home to visit her family when her grandmother passes away, and finds that her nightmares are growing increasingly troubling in meaning. A student of dream psychology, Jessica is desperate to interpret what these dreams mean in the context of her family's enigmatic history -- particularly that of her mother and her grandmother, but her mother refuses to indulge her prodding, and Jessica slowly descends deeper into her nightmarish dream world. There she's haunted by a horse-headed man, searching for a key that is both literal and figurative, hoping to unlock the secret to understanding what drove her grandmother mad.

The concept of lucid dreaming is inherently abstract, but Basset plays his film entirely too literal. Between the dubstep-flavored score and the needless exposition between dream sequences (not to mention the exposition within the dreams themselves), Horsehead is a blunt-force exercise. Dreams are open to interpretation, as is so much of the cinematic experience. Part of the joy of film is that subjectivity that allows for the individual viewing experience; your mileage may vary.

Thematically speaking, Basset explores concepts of guilt, shame, grief, hereditary mental illness, religious mania, and -- just barely -- grazes the surface of how madness and insanity are dependent on personal perspective. But rather than allow his audience to glean these concepts and come to these conclusions by creating a truly unique and highly abstract sensory experience that mirrors a dreamlike state, Basset crafts a more traditional and frustratingly literal narrative. It's like watching a really slick gothic music video that's literally interpreting the lyrics for you.

There are a few fun and wacky moments within the nightmare world, mostly involving Jessica's grandfather, who is horribly dubbed-over and utters some of the most laughable lines in the film. And there are definitely some neat and practical visual ideas -- but they're so bare and basic and redundant. Given the costuming and design, it often feels like, at best, a really wild episode of Red Shoe Diaries. Like maybe an imported copy of an Italian version. As our own Brian Collins says, "A movie that has a nightmare scene of a woman making out with her mother should not be this flat."

Horsehead is one of those films that thinks it's incredibly abstract and elusive and bizarre, when it's really just Lucid Dreaming for Dummies -- a film that thinks it's way smarter than it is, and in doing so, sets itself up for failure by creating an expectation it can't possibly satisfy, insulting your intelligence in the process.