Holy Cthulhu, Lord of the underworld! It’s almost Halloween!
I nearly let it slip by completely, that’s how busy my schedule has become. Imagine if I let Halloween go by without acknowledgement, or indeed the mandatory celebration. What happens then? Is it like dividing the universe by zero? Does it collapse in on itself infinitely for the rest of time? I think so!
But not this year! I may be able to save the world yet.
Maybe it’s the fact that Melbourne has been flooding us with 30 degree weather for a while now, but I’m not really feelin’ the ‘Ween this year. Australia in general suffers from a Transylvanian tone deficit in October, so a lot of effort is required to tip the scales the other way. We need mist, we need thunder, we need darkness. We need a nightmare!
I’ve wanted to do this one for a while, and now seems like the perfect excuse- I mean…opportunity…to finally type it up. I’ve always had a cynical relationship with dream sequences. Nine times out of ten they’re hokey and overdone. Typically they constitute a narrative or aesthetic crutch. It’s one more way to squeeze in some tension or additional plot development. At its worst it serves as nothing more than a cheap script beat. “We haven’t had any excitement for a while…how about an irrelevant dream sequence?”. Cut, print, perfect!
But every once in a while I’ll see a dream sequence in a movie that really grabs me. It’s usually a horror dream sequence, and when it’s done well it can actually become a memorable movie moment. The thing that separates a good nightmare sequence from a bad one is how relatable it is. We all have those dream tropes that seem to be universal. Have you ever had that dream where all your teeth fall out? How about ones where you’re suddenly about to give a speech or take a test and you’ve forgotten everything? For some reason I have recurring nightmares where trees and boulders fall on top of me. Then there’s one where I’m mysteriously launched thousands of feet into the air and begin to descend at terminal velocity. How weird is that, right? I’m not falling off a cliff like you’d expect. I’m always being launched, like a rocket, into the atmosphere first. I can’t explain why, but it’s terrifying and visits me a couple of times a year.
Now, I can’t point to any dream sequences that tap into my particular paranoias, but there are some that manage to capture an eerily accurate tone. Dreams are strange. They’re not like real life at all. Although we believe that they’re real as we’re experience them, there’s always a mystical quality underlying all of it. People appear and disappear when we want them to and locations change on a dime. People are alive one minute, dead the next, and then alive again. As a child I often wished I could invent a machine that would record my dreams onto a VHS tape. What would that look like? My best guess is that it’d be a montage of strange images, colours, and sounds, like that “death tape” from The Ring.
Visualising the subconscious; hard to do, but evidently not impossible. What better place to start, in our quest to overturn our own rocks of repression, than with David Lynch.
Lynch is famous for putting what he calls ‘dream logic’ up on the big screen. No one really blends fantasy and reality quite as effectively as he does, and somehow he’s able to do it without resorting to visual effects.
The following is the opening scene of Mulholland Drive. It’s an odd moment that appears to have no connection to the rest of the film, but it’s certainly tonally and thematically relevant. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m not going to spoil what happens by speaking in detail. All I’ll say is that it’s not entirely clear whether it is a dream or not, but that’s also the point. It could possibly be an Inception-like dream within a dream, or it could simply be real life imitating a nightmare.
The thing that really adds a dreamlike quality to this sequence is the etherial nature of the camera. It floats gently in the air, as if on a cloud, merely hovering around its subjects. Then, we’re robbed of all sound, almost like someone’s sticking their fingers in our ears. Dream or not, it’s a terrifyingly tense buildup.
The ultra-small but surprisingly good thriller Take Shelter features a very well structured nightmare sequence. Like the film itself, it does a lot with very little. Now, I have to admit that this one works best when seen within the context of the film. That’s because of the lack of transition, either in or out. We just suddenly find ourselves within Curtis’ fortuitous subconscious, staring directly at his dismal envisioning of where his marriage is headed.
Nothing is said, and yet it somehow it captures that exact essence that can make a scary dream so scary. Everything is just a little…off.
Ah, Hellraiser. Why do I love thee so? You’re my Brokeback Horror…”I wish I could quit you”. Somehow so much of what I do ends up coming back to Hellraiser, and that’s because it’s a masterpiece.
Even those who find the silliness of Hellraiser‘s reality to be overproduced and hokey have to admit that its streamlined representation of a terrifying dream is something to admire. This one really creeps me out. As with Take Shelter, there is a foreshadowing element here that provides a deeper meaning when seen in full context. Still, you have to admit that this has to be just about the worst kind of dream you could ever have.
That’s her father, by the way, popping up at the end there. I hope somebody invents a ‘therapist on demand’ service that ships psychological relief straight to your front door, because Kirsty’s gonna need it. The feathers, the sounds of flapping bird’s wings, the slow motion, and of course that chilling echoed infant’s cry. Each one of these elements has been picked because of their relevance to Kirsty. She’s the innocent child in the story who needs to fly away from her home of horror.
The Conversation isn’t really talked about for its dream sequence, but I think it’s actually one of the most effective parts of the film.
The whole movie centres around the “will he won’t he” dilemma. Should Harry Caul inform the victim of his espionage that he suspects she will be murdered? Well, if he can’t do it in real life, maybe he can do it in a dream?
The problem is, of course, that dreams play themselves out exactly like reality. Why would they be any different? If you have a challenging issue in your life, your dream is only going to play it back to you reinforced. Harry is not only separated from the woman physically and visually, he also cannot seem to find the right confession. Only when the woman disappears can he finally utter the words “He’ll kill you if he gets the chance”.
I love the use of smoke and cross fades in this one. It really gives it a mysterious quality in conjunction with the throbbing sound design. The fog that engrosses everything helps to push it all into that recognisably dream like state. I had a strong connection to this one upon first seeing it. Something about Harry’s futile attempts to reach out across the mist reminded me of several similar dreams that I’ve had. His desire continually exceeds his grasp, and that’s a theme that seems to be abundant in dream narrative.
Then we reach the ultimate in nightmare realisation. For me, this is the most accurate portrayal of a bad dream that I’ve ever come across.
For those of you who haven’t seen The Exorcist, shame on you! In fact, if you haven’t seen it in a while, why not watch it again now this Halloween? I’ll admit that it’s not one of the most scary films I’ve seen in my life, but the story and the direction is just too good to overlook. It’s a classic, plain and simple.
And yet, no one ever talks about Father Karras’ nightmare. They reminisce about a little girl’s head spinning around and her explosive green vomit, but nothing about this extraordinary sequence right here. This is what a dream feels like, and it’s all down to inspired editing. Pay attention to how William Friedkin, the director, overlays the sound of Karras shifting in his bed and half-snoring. I don’t know why, but I get this sense of deja-vu every time I see it. I just know that that’s exactly what my dreams feel like, even though I couldn’t possibly be hearing myself murmur. It’s so oddly well observed.
So those are the nightmare sequences that I personally have the strongest connections to. To me, they feel like genuine attempts at immersing the audience into a believable dream world. It’s rather terrifying…
…but not really that fun! I want to have some fun on Halloween!!!
Therefore I’m going to end this posting by showing you the most ridiculous dream sequence of all time. It’s the most useless, pointless, absurd, unbelievable, and confusing film nightmare that I’ve ever seen. Some of you know it, but if you’re lucky then this will be your first time seeing it. It is of course…
An American Werewolf in London is a great film and, again, it’s one that you should consider checking out this Halloween. It’s not all that scary, but it does have its creepy moments and certainly features the greatest werewolf transformation sequence there’s ever been. Still, people have to be reminded that it’s a horror comedy. It plays with the typical structure of a werewolf movie and uses its horror elements as fodder for absurd humour. What else do you call a lycanthrope-infected protagonist who’s constantly being annoyed by the walking zombie ghost of his dead best friend?
Bizarrely, right in the middle of this typical storyline, we have a dream sequence that makes no sense at all. You have to remember that this is a movie about an American tourist in England being bitten by a werewolf and suffering the consequences…so can you please tell me what on God’s green earth this is all about?
Like I said, it’s a comedy…but what the hell? Why mutant Nazi werewolf people? Why are they shooting up his family? Why are they burning his house down? Why do they hate Kermit the Frog so much? Why? Why? Why? And then just when you think it’s over, it throws one more curveball at you.
I may not understand it…but I certainly love the tenacity. It’s the polar opposite of all these other dream sequence. It knows how absurd and un-relatable it is, and simply doesn’t care.
Have yourself a Happy Halloween everybody! Sweet dreams…now and forever!