Adam Dunning knows what scares you.
The Carbondale-based filmmaker’s last project, the 2012 feature “Laughter,” mined one of contemporary culture’s most common fears: clowns. Before that, 2011’s “The inFected,” tapped into society’s anxieties about terrorism, disease, and the seemingly always in-vogue living dead.
Now, Dunning is back and, with the short film “Hypnophobia,” he’s delving into the birthplace of all nightmares: sleep itself.
“When people hear ‘hypnophobia,’ the fear of sleep, automatically everyone’s mind goes right to Freddy Krueger, but you can do a hundred different things with that,” Dunning said.
“The challenge is always in trying to do something different. You want to see if you can top what came before, and you want to do something original. People who have seen the movie have come up to me and said, ‘That was nothing like what I was expecting.’”
Premiering locally on Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Greater Carbondale Chamber of Commerce building with a pair of back-to-back screenings, “Hypnophobia” tells the story of jailed mental patient Sam (Erin Rovin) who, each night, is plagued by visions of a dead little girl (Olivia Kuttrubis). As the lines between reality and nightmare blur, Sam’s therapist, Dr. Peters (Sam Rovin), tries to help her reassert her increasingly tenuous hold on sanity. There might be more to this tale than somebody with a few loose screws having bad dreams, however. As the film’s tagline hints, “Sleep is not what you should be afraid of.”
“It’s more of a psychological suspense-thriller,” Dunning said, comparing it to his previous works. “To be honest, a lot of my friends teased me about it. ‘Laughter’ was a huge gore-fest, but in this there’s almost no gore. It was different for me, to try and shock people with twists that they don’t see coming. That’s thing with thrillers – people are trying to figure out the twist. If you give it away too early, they think, ‘Alright, I figured it out. I can go home now.’”
As if the challenge of tackling a very different style of horror than what he’s used to wasn’t enough for Dunning, the fact that “Hypnophobia” is roughly a 30-minute-long short film, as opposed to a full feature like “Laughter” and “The inFected,” added another layer of complexity to the film’s creation. Though he admitted he prefers the freedom features provide, Dunning said “Hypnophobia” gave him fresh opportunities to refine his craft as a storyteller.
In other words, “Hypnophobia” packs as much goodness into as small and tight a package as it can, taking a minimal approach to setting and cast while piling on the maximum amount of mystery and dread. The film has already screened at the Austin Indie Flix Showcase and the San Antonio Horrific Film Fest to positive response, notably being nominated for several awards, including Best Produced Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Short Film, at the latter.
With all the interest he’s generating in the horror film fan community, one might be forgiven for assuming Dunning, a hardcore horror fan himself, would be content to keep churning out cinematic shockers. Instead, as “Hypnophobia” itself proves in many ways, this is one fear-monger who isn’t afraid to step outside his comfort zone.
“I don’t think I want to do another horror film right now,” Dunning said. “I want to try my hand at another genre. I’m not entirely sure which yet, but I’d really like to see how I’d handle making the transition to something different. It might turn out horror is where I need to be, but you never know.”