WARNING: Contains spoilers for such films as Stranger Than Fiction, Blazing Saddles and Shock Treatment.
Previously: Part 1 (how I came to love horror, and reality collapse horror, by reading VHS tag-lines as a child)
And now, as a warm-up to the main event, let’s take a look at what happens when reality gets a little questionable in a few non-horror films…
Playing with filmic reality
One common trope of Reality Collapse horror is an increasingly unclear distinction between the objective and the subjective. As the difference is removed, it suggests a kind of psychosis of the part of the protagonist, and that psychosis can have a strongly paranoid element.
Before I dive into Reality Collapse horror properly in later instalments, first I’m going to use this entry run through some non-horrors (and non-films) with which they have a little something in common. Along the way I’ll point out how closely linked the concepts of psychosis and paranoia are to the idea of collapsing reality.
Music, theatrics, operatics… and escape into euphoria
Reflecting the interior world of the protagonist in the nominally objective world of the wider film is not unusual in cinema – it’s a very standard technique that’s almost hard to avoid unless you really try to do so. But some genres have historically pushed it further than others. Film Noir, for example, with its churrasco shadows and slanted streaks of light that box in and oppress the characters. Highly stylised musicals, such as An American in Paris (1951) or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), often make use of deliberating stagey and unreal sets to create a heightened reality. Sometimes these musicals suggest a possible derangement in their characters; even when they appear relatively unstylised flights into euphoric fantasy in Dancer In The Dark (2000) but then Dogme 95 is an anti-style, and therefore a style).
In fact, there may be a link between the films that are most clearly rooted in theatre and a willingness to reflect a character’s inner life through allowing for conspicuous artificiality in their world. The Cabinet of Caligari, for example, took inspiration for its sets from German Expressionist theatre. When Tim Burton took inspiration from Caligari for Batman (1989) and (even more so) Batman Returns (1992), he was dropping us the nod; this Bruce Wayne was kind of a wackjob. With its angles, arches, light-shafts and buttresses, his Gotham is a New York of the mind, and the death of the Penguin a grand subterranean opera played out in psychosexual latex.
Like Michael Keaton said: “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” Keaton’s Wayne had a touch of real mania, and mania can be close to euphoria.
Speaking of opera, Phil Glass adds an operatic slant to Paul Schrader’s Mishima – A Life in Four Chapters (1985). In it, the stylised recreations of key scenes from Mishima’s novels draw attention to the artificiality of fiction, but also suggest the potential for flight from reality; escape into art.
“To die into the finished book….” pace Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor.
Elsewhere in music, Spike Jonze made a start by playing with unreality in pop videos such as Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet (1995), in which unreality and euphoria go hand in hand and she urges us to shhh, and not break the spell.
Comic teasing at the edges of reality
After It’s Oh So Quiet, Jonze explored multiple levels of reality in Being John Malkovich (1999). Set in a fairground mirror reality to begin with, it nonetheless comes close to tearing itself apart when Malkovich enters a portal leading into his own mind, setting up a nightmarish feedback look of Malkoviches. From there, his Adaptation (2002) plays with a collapse between fiction and reality, teasing an unstable relationship where the ‘truth’ behaves according to the rules of good screenwriting even as the script within the film refuses to conform.
The audience is left uncertain of how much they’ve seen is reliable, and are ultimately left with two choices – either confess the whole thing is unreliable as (after all) it’s only a move, or try and pick apart the multiple levels of reality – at which point you end up wandering into a hall of mirrors, never to return.
Other genres play with reality to, in other ways – breaking the fourth wall, say, in The Naked Gun (1988), or Fleabag (2016-2019), or Hellzapoppin’ (1941), or Head (1968).
Or, of course, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
The fourth wall can broken for the purposes of a dramatic escalation driven by the narrator, such as in Goodfellas (1990), or a few dozen Goodfellas ripoffs.
In Blazing Saddles (1974) Mel Brooks has cowboys crash through the wall into a neighbouring musical, then ultimately out into the studio lot, until in a reality-warping twist they find themselves chasing down and shooting the villain in a cinema showing their own movie. Spaceballs (1987) repeats the joke by having the villains track down the good guys by simply watching a VHS video of the film they’re in by fast-forwarding to the next scene to see where they are. It also gets the cameramen in on the action, by having one of them die accidentally, as collateral damage in a lightsaber battle. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) has a comparable climax – at the point at which the knights are in sight of their goal, the police simply turn up and arrest everyone – including the cameramen.
In Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and Deadpool (2016), the main character comes to recognise themselves as fictional – something that would typically be a form of psychological fugue, but which is here turned on its head and made enjoyably ironic as, of course, they really are fictional, and so what would usually be a sign of severe mental illness is instead a wonderful psychological breakthrough. In Deadpool, as in Fleabag, wall-breaking is explicitly tied to psychological trauma.
Deadpool’s audience awareness draws from the comics, where it is part a reader-awareness tradition that stretches back decades. Usually this is played for fun (“see you next week, comic fans!”), but it has sometimes done with a little more metatextual nightmarishness, as the hero gradually recognised their own fictional nature. The most famous example, pre-Deadpool, was probably Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, where again it was depicted a somewhat painfully achieved psychological breakthrough.
Trapped in a virtual world
The other great non-horror genre that deals with collapses of reality is, of course, science fiction. That genre gives us endless worlds where plucky young heros come to realise that nothing is real, everything is artificial… a neat parallel for a teenager or young adults evolving social consciousness, given metaphoric status by having them realise they’re in a virtual reality, or similar.
The best writer at this sort of thing was Philip K Dick, for whom “what is reality?” was a major concern, alongside “what is human consciousness?”. The most basic, obvious ways to to explore these themes in science fiction has always been to prod at a wall and ask “is this VR?” or to peer into a lover’s eyes and ask “is this a robot?”. But Dick did it with much more flair and intelligence than most. His fake people are the replicants of Blade Runner. His fake realities are many, but include the world-altering drug of Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, the brain-altering drug of A Scanner Darkly, the new religion of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and the artificially constructed (but rapidly decomposing) afterlife of Valis. (Note that there is a prominent Valis poster on display during the LSD sequence in metatextual choose-your-own adventure Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch (2018)).
Dick had a natural feel for this stuff. He was also, of course, prone to paranoid psychosis.
“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves.”
– Philip K Dick.
In cinema, the most obvious collapsing VR world is in The Matrix (1999). Its early scenes are somewhat horror-esque, before Neo escapes the false world and it turns into more of a kung-fu action fantasy. Its obvious key inspiration, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973), maintains a sense of dread for longer, and never quite shakes it of – even at the very end, all we ever get to see of the ‘real world’ is the inside of one room, and an unverifiable assurance that the protagonist has “got out”. Much of the story is spent chasing one character after another as they vanish from the town, and everyone insists that they were never really there at all. Some of the same effect is achieved in World on a Wire‘s clunkier American remake, The Thirteenth Floor (1999).
Of course Star Trek, from The Next Generation onwards, made endless hay from “wait, of course…. we never left the holodeck!”.
Cryogenic VR nightmares Abre Los Ojos (1997) and its remake Vanilla Sky (2001) likewise taunt their increasingly paranoid characters with disintegrating, unreliable realities in which things mutate and disappear, as does the seemingly unbordered immersive theatre experience of Fincher’s The Game (1997), or the reality tv show subterfuge of The Truman Show (1998).
Images and objects
There are a number of examples in fantasy and comedy cinema of people traveling through screens; for people from the world of the image to emerge into our world of objects, and vice versa. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) has a character emerging from a cinema screen to become a love interest, while Pleasantville (1998) and Stay Tuned (1992) have characters entering into televisions to learn something about themselves and their ideas about romance. The Last Action Hero (1993) interrogates the authenticity of cinema (primarily action cinema) by having characters travel in both directions, even playing with the idea of the doppelgänger by having fictional detective Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) meet lightly fictionalised movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and express mild contempt for him. Usually the moral of these stories is – images are nice, but we must put aside fantasy, or at least keep it in its place, and face ups to the reality we live in. Played for horror, of course, the result can be quite different, as we’ll see.
Shock Treatment (1981) ties together a few of these themes quite nicely – it’s a musical centred around a mental hospital inside a reality tv show that has taken over an entire town, and apparently sealed the residents in – to their delight. The sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), it was a massive commercial failure, but today seems uncannily prescient. Not once do we leave the studio – the film starts as the audience enters, and the doors close behind them. Members are drawn into participating in game shows, singalongs, fashion influencing, and the occasional forced lobotomisation – and the results are broadcast to their seating, hollering (and sometimes sleeping) neighbours. Not for nothing has this film been described as predicting the rise of social media.
At one point Janet turns to the camera and sings a plea for help to her viewers: “Tell me spectator… why are we always sooner or later… bitchin’ in the kitchin, or cryin’ in the bedroom all night?”.
The audience cheers enthusiastically, and her husband Brad is wheeled off to be placed in a straightjacket. The blind psychiatrist-cum-gameshow host (played by Barry Humphries) dances around enthusiastically. Later on, he eyes up a girl in the shower. Much as on Instagram, nothing is as it seems.
Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky, The Game, The Truman Show, even Shock Treatment ultimately play on the classic paranoiac fantasy – and the secret fear behind much online life these days – you’re all just putting it on!
You’re all IN ON IT!
Next: We dive into horror… and the dissolving distinction between sleep and wakefulness, from Freddy to Paperhouse to Dreamscape to the uncertain murders of Brian De Palma. See you soon… in dreams.