I’m used to Louie bringing tears to my eyes, but “Untitled” is the first time my eyes peed their pants in fear. It starts out so pleasantly, too. It’s just a day in the life of Louie with an easy, open-armed non-title, like it’s still being worked on, unformed, a doodle. In the background, though, the horror mounts. At worst I suspected Jane is depressed, because she talks about having no friends, she’s worried for the lobsters in the tank at the grocery store, and she tells her doctor she sometimes thinks she could take a deep breath and make a wish and vanish into nothingness. Jane might be depressed after all, but Louie’s the one we should be concerned about here. After falling asleep in the taxi, he wakes up in his bedroom, and he doesn’t remember getting there. Then there’s a knock on his door, and he says, “Oh no.” Who is it? He opens the door, but there’s nothing there. Not even a hallway. It’s just darkness. And then the boogeyman sprints out of the black and lunges at Louie’s neck.

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It’s like an expertly told joke where the humor waits until the precise moment the comedian wants you to laugh, even though every word leads inexorably to the end. Except with horror instead of humor. In retrospect it makes sense. The sets are cramped, from the tiny doctor’s office to the towering stacks of groceries, Jane’s stories supply the tension, the lost time gives a dreamlike feel, and the knock and the darkness add some surrealism, but the horror doesn’t fully register until the moment the boogeyman shows up, and even then it takes a second, until about the moment he jumps at Louie and unhinges his jaws, to comprehend that this is “really” happening.

This guy is chilling. Later there’s a dream with Louie’s brother wearing a rabbit head. This is more like a rabbit wearing Louie’s brother’s head. This particular boogeyman is a toned man in red shorts and nothing else, and his head is rubbery, covered in a shiny, bald humanish mask, like a rejected Trash Humper, only it’s smooth and has empty eye-sockets. The whole attack takes a few seconds, but the boogeyman moves in alternating fast-forward and slow-motion just enough to heighten the terror. He’s like an evil Mr. Peepers from Saturday Night Live or a Denis Lavant character in Holy Motors, which are basically the same thing. And for some reason he wants to bite Louie.

It’s hard to know how much of what follows is real life, because the story keeps taking uncanny turns and the boogeyman keeps attacking Louie, even when Louie visits the doctor to ask about his nightmares. Eventually, in a scene I’m pretty sure actually happens—even Louie looks behind him first, to make sure nobody’s gonna run out of the darkness and attack him—Nick DiPaolo, after some banter, takes a sincere moment to counsel Louie. “What do you think’s causing the nightmares?” It’s beautiful. Not only is the obstacle surmountable, DiPaolo’s saying, but Louie can solve it himself.

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He tells Louie to think about what was weighing on him when they started, which leads Louie back to when he picked up Lily from a sleepover and the hostess, a divorcee, wanted Louie to move her aquarium and then crumpled into tears when he politely declined. That is a strange moment. Louie just stands there, taking it all in stride, almost refusing to accept that anything weird is happening. Louie’s typically moved by other people’s extreme reactions to him, even if he’s just moved to awkwardness. Here he’s the normal one and he knows he’s the normal one. No crippling self-doubt or sense of futility for a change, but he also doesn’t resent the encounter. However, this is the business he left unfinished before the nightmares stared, so he returns to help move the aquarium, which turns into fixing the toilet, changing the light bulbs, and fulfilling other husbandly duties as well. It works. The nightmares are gone, but the dreamy closing song, an old-fashioned number with the sample lyric, “Their smiling faces give me diarrhea,” keeps the uncanny alive.

But there’s a lot of anxiety in those dreams, and “Untitled” brings them to life so well we might have grounds for a class-action suit. There’s a runner about an up-and-comer (Jonathan Glaser) stealing Louie’s jokes and later his jacket. There’s a moment where Louie can’t resist letting an older woman bite down on his hand. For extra strangeness Jim Norton’s the one that screams in pain instead of Louie. Then Louie looks down to realize he doesn’t have a penis anymore, just a swirl of skin like a Ken doll squirted out of an icing bag. Finally there’s a whole Lords Of Salem-style dream montage that notably features Louie and his brother humping, taking turns with the rabbit head and each other. Maybe dream Grodin is right, and the dreams are just mental refuse being flushed, but fearing castration and plagiarism and being replaced by younger, fresher talent are pretty clear worries. So what’s with all the biting?

Maybe there’s no logic. After all, even though there’s a logical cure to the nightmares, the nightmares themselves hold no clues to it. In an interview published today by Matt Zoller Seitz, David Chase talks about the difference between the symbolic, interpretable dreams of The Sopranos and the subconscious, surreal dreams of Twin Peaks. “Untitled” has both, but the latter are the source of its power. Louie’s crotch swirl is kind of humorous. The boogeyman brought tears to my eyes. It can’t be understood, and that deepens the terror, drawing us in. That’s what makes “Untitled” unshakable.

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Stray observations:

  • At the doctor’s, Louie says hello to the other parent and child waiting for an appointment, and they don’t say anything. Jane tells Louie, without lowering her voice, “She’s not very friendly.” Louie admonishes her, and she says, “Well, she’s not.” Louie turns to them and bluntly says, “Well, you’re not.”
  • I’m not sure if we should be worried about Jane or if that’s just the daughter on Nurse Jackie (and other shows) talking, but here are two other freaky things Jane tells the doctor: She sometimes feels like she’s sweating but on the inside of her face, and she thinks she can see electricity, as in rays of electrons themselves. I’d say this was a dream, too, but apparently everything until Louie picked up Lily was real.
  • Lily’s excited about the movie they watched at the sleepover, about a guy who had a gang but then was arrested and had his eyes pried apart to be reconditioned. Louie interrupts: “You saw Clockwork Orange?!”
  • Louie commiserates with his friends. They tell him to try melatonin, but he doesn’t want to take any pills. They tell him to try hypnosis, but he doesn’t want to get into New Age stuff. “Well then don’t complain!”
  • In the same scene, someone says, “Everyone hates you,” and Louie can’t find his jacket. Turns out Crazy Glasy was wearing it. And this is one of the “real life” sequences.

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