28 Oct 2021
Chris Attoh, Tatjana Marjanovic, Atticus Hinckley
Somniphobia is an anxiety disorder. The sufferer worries about death or nightmares, and even at the point of exhaustion, they stay awake. Simply put, somniphobia is the fear of sleep. In Dillon Vibbart’s short film, we follow Ryley Rose (Marjanovic), a woman haunted by a ghoul in her dreams. Exhausted and terrified, she and her boyfriend Brian (Hinckley) seek help from somnologist Dr Brady (Attoh). At first denying the online rumours that he can enter people’s dreams, Dr Brady comes to realise that he may be Ryley’s only hope. Is there really a monster attacking her, or were the wounds on her arms caused by something more earthly?
Vibbart said that the goal with Somniphobia was to “make a horror film with a deeper meaning.” This assumes that horror films are usually shallow. In fact, since the dawn of the genre, horror stories have been used to explore writers’ fears and concerns through a supernatural or speculative lens. In the 1950s, for example, fear of nuclear war gave us Godzilla. Zombie films have long been used to comment on wider society, on our consumerism or bigotries. The list goes on. Vibbart is not the first to use a supernatural theme to explore human nature, and sadly, he relies far too heavily on exposition. It is clear to any discerning viewer where the film is headed in the first five minutes, but he still has Attoh deliver a few speeches along the way, just in case we missed something. Perhaps Vibbart, stuck in the assumption that horror films do not generally have deeper meanings, worried that the audience might not grasp his message. Unfortunately, whatever the reason, it leaves us with a very simple film over-explaining itself.
The plot is serviceable but lacking. Much of this is down to the characters fitting archetypes typical to the horror genre. Ryley and her casually racist boyfriend (he calls Dr Brady a “witch doctor” who does “voodoo magic”) fit neatly into the horror movie couple trope: the woman becomes aware of possibly paranormal activity, and the man doubts her. Vibbart is not the first director to explore this theme, and he certainly won’t be the last; the trope is ubiquitous because the experience is ubiquitous. The film’s conclusion unfortunately appears to place some of the blame for Ryley’s suffering on Ryley herself, and speaking of unfortunate, Dr Brady fits a more general archetype. It is more than a little uncomfortable to watch a film from 2021 play so heavily (and, one hopes, accidentally) into a racist trope: a benevolent Black man with magical powers saving a defenceless white woman, calling her ‘Miss’ all the while.
On the technical side of things, Joshua Nitschke’s cinematography adds very little to the proceedings. There are some confusing lighting choices, especially in the nightmare sequences, though this should perhaps be excused by the lack of logic in dreams, but mostly nothing stands out. This is a real shame, as some better lighting or shot composition could have made Ryley’s ghoul (and the other monsters) a greater presence. Lance Trevino’s score, meanwhile, is forgettable and can get in the way of dialogue. Thankfully, the creature effects and makeup by M.J. DuBarr are fun.
Fear is subjective, but it is a shame that Somniphobia is not scary. It lacks dread; we never truly fear for Ryley’s life, and when the monsters become a real threat, we aren’t supposed to be afraid. Add to that the unsubverted tropes and archetypes, and Somniphobia becomes a horror film that wants to keep you awake, but might put you to sleep instead.