Review: Hypnagogia

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Nightmares are not a new topic for horror movies, but the distantly related sleep paralysis has not been explored too much yet. In Lars-Erik Lie’s short film Hypnagogia, genres are mixed with the titular phenomenon taking center stage.

Wikipedia says that “Hypnagogia is the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep: the hypnagogic state of consciousness”, in other words, a phase between being awake and sleeping. Hypnagogia is also the name of Lars-Erik Lie’s first horror film since The thrill of a kill (2011), and even though it is a short film clocking in at around 27 minutes, it has many cinematic qualities on display.

The victim of the hypnagogia is Johnny (Kim Ulvberget), a creepy photographer who has an appointment with a beautiful young girl, Nadia (Camilla Vestbø Losvik). She’s an inexperienced model, so Johnny lures her into a factory, where he immediately attacks and rapes her. Those damn fake glamour photographers – didn’t your mother tell you to stay away from them?! Back home at his mansion, Johnny is done raping for the day and hits the bed. But do you think he will get a good night’s sleep?

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Would you let this guy photograph you in your underwear?

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This girl would. She even came voluntarily.

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And see what happened…

The overall idea of the film seems to be to explore the borders between dreams, nightmares, imagination and conscience (and maybe madness) in a framework of justice, using the psyche of Johnny the violator as a bulletin board for all the processes. Potentially a messy field to go into – psychological thrillers are too often limited to sweaty people gazing into a wall – but the film manages to keep focus on the story, the narration and the filmic elements. Far from simply a psychological drama, Hypnagogia is all about the terror that Johnny goes through, be it neurons firing in the wrong directions or a X that X his X…

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Hypnagogia, which is shot in English for an international audience, is a creepy horror film that depends more on atmosphere than shocks or gore. It combines elements from Japanese ghost movies with Italian giallo, with stuff from rape-revenge exploitation, haunted houses and supernatural occurrences thrown in for good measure. This is not only an interesting genre mix, it is also a quite unique feat in a Nordic context, and maybe surprisingly, it all blends together very well. To stay with the psycho babble, the film is never schizophrenic, as it integrates everything nicely. The only exception is the ending; with all the subgenres and moody horror/fantasy varieties included, the ending seems a bit tacked-on as it breaks with the flavour of the rest of the film, even though it provides a necessary explanation to wrap the story up.

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Another surprise is the colourful images introduced about one third into the film. Inspired by Italian genre cinema of the 70s, this is perhaps another first in Norway. Washes of red, purple, yellow, pink and green are mixed with ambient light, and if done right, these rainbowy splashes add to the story and the characters. It isn’t evident from the start what they mean other than stylistic surface (hint; pre-rape scenes are all filmed in natural light), but the very fact that the movie has a different look than every other Norwegian film out there, should be taken notice of. And, if you’re into specific genre trademarks, there’s also a nice electronic music score that sounds quite right for this kind of arty looking chiller.

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The running time of 27 minutes seems just about right – the pacing is good, there isn’t much padding or repeats, and the point is made around the right time. Short films are not just about keeping production time down or not having enough material for 100 minutes; it is also about building and releasing in a different way than in features, so making Hypnagogia a short film was probably a good choice. The only thing that could have been included more was what really happened to Nadia after the rape. Did she die? Did she become a ghost? Both? Did she X the X in Johnny’s X herself – it’s a bit unclear. But then again, dreams and sleep-like states are usually unclear.

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Speaking of lacks and wants; as the film is made on the devilish low budget of 666 dollars, you obviously have to expect some quirks and cracks. The sound is a bit uneven at times (though overall better than in The thrill of a kill), and there’s a couple of places that is a bit inconsistent in production design. And, while the actors are well cast and look their parts, they do not always sound confident in their English dialogue. The film does not have a lot of it, due to being driven by images and actions, so it’s not a major problem. It can also be argued that more shots of Johnny as the X is Xing his X is missing; the money shot is there, but more could have been made out of that scene.

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Perhaps the ambitions of Hypnagogia were a bit higher than the budget, but the fact that the film takes on a mainly unknown phenomena and does so with an exciting style while supporting a genre-bending story, should inspire someone to give director Lars-Erik Lie a proper budget for his next film.

The film can be rented or bought at Vimeo.

Rated 6 of 10.

Directed by Lars-Erik Lie.

Norway, 2014.

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