Just when you thought "The Silence of the Lambs" had spawned its last exploitative knock-off, along comes "In Dreams," a sick little vehicle for several actors who should know better.
Annette Bening plays a children's book illustrator who is being haunted by premonitory dreams wherein little girls are being abducted by a redheaded stranger who is not Willie Nelson. When her visions begin to come true, hitting fatally close to home, she enters a world of teasing paranoia we haven't seen since "Gaslight" and a mental institution that might just have been vacated by Susan Hayward.
Aidan Quinn makes the appropriate shrugs of helplessness as her 747 pilot-husband, and Stephen Rea has adopted a vaguely Brooklyn accent as her equally useless psychiatrist. If you're wondering who Robert Downey plays, then "In Dreams" is just what you deserve.
Little girls being led into the woods by the big bad wolf, and the grown-up women who also fall into his clutches, are such linchpins of Gothic horror that it seems fruitless to critique them. They become hoary -- and troubling -- cliches rather than time-honored cinematic conventions.
Even more objectionable than the crypto-sexism of "In Dreams" is its utter poverty of imagination, from the stiletto-heeled mommy who animates its villain to Bening's Grand Guignol of a performance (it's her second turn as a hysterical hostage, after "The Siege," and it's a disappointing pattern).
The director, Neil Jordan, showed early promise with such understated thrillers as "Mona Lisa" and "The Crying Game." But "In Dreams," which he adapted from the novel "Doll's Eyes," seems closer to his "Interview With the Vampire" in its unsuccessful marriage of the rococo and the literal. Jordan would do well to remember, next time he brings a horror novel to the screen, that the audience's imagination can produce far more terror than mere illustration.
Starring Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by Neil Jordan
Released by Dreamworks
Rated R (violence/terror and language)
Running time: 100 minutes
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 1/15/99