WARNING: Contains spoilers for films including Carrie, Event Horizon, Friday the 13th, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Nightmare City, An American Werewolf in London, Paperhouse, Raising Cain, Passion and Femme Fatale.
Previously: Part 1 (how I came to love horror, and reality collapse horror, by reading VHS tag-lines as a child); Part 2 (a warm-up wander through some non-horror examples of untrustworthy, subjective or disintegrating filmic realities)
And now, and look at what happens when the distinction between dreams and wakefulness… collapses!
When we think of horror films in which reality starts to become dangerously unreliable, one of the first things to come to mind is A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and all its attendant sequels (and its remake, if you’re so inclined).
Freddy Krueger himself never felt like the true threat of these films to me. Maybe that’s because the first Elm Street movie I ever saw was Part 4: Dream Master (1988), by which time he’d become 50% comedy act, but he wasn’t like Jason in the Friday the 13th (1980) movies, or Michael Myers in the Halloween (1978) films. In those films the killer is the source of the danger, even if there are other, murkier forces that obliquely support them – such as parental disconnection, or the patriarchy, or what have you. The killer is still the main issue.
But with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, it always felt to me like Freddy was just one aspect of what was coming for them. The ultimate danger was dreams themselves, and the irrationality they represent. For me, the threat in Elm Street wasn’t just in the nightmare, it is the nightmare. Though the explicit logic of the films suggests Freddy is in control of the process, the subliminal suggestion always seemed more that dreamworld itself had become sentient, and was starting to seek out and consume people. Like the birds in The Birds (1963), or the Ants in Phase IV (1974), this is an “and then they turned on us!” plot, and it’s the dreams that are turning.
A repeating motif in the Elm Street films is that people fall asleep and don’t realise it. This is almost always the high point for genuine dread and fear. Once Freddy turns up, he gurns, wisecracks, snarls, and then perhaps kills the dreamer – but this is rarely scary. Instead, it’s a little earlier, when the slow-mo kicks in, when people’s hair starts to be lifted by a mysterious breeze, when the furniture all seems to be slightly too large or too uniform, when everyone else in the room seems vaguely tranced out, preoccupied, heads down at their school desks or buried in a pillow… Suddenly you’re isolated – no one will respond, although to be honest you don’t feel like talking to them anyone. You just want to follow that shadow, that ball, that mysterious little girl. Then a door opens and you stand up and slowly walk away. That’s the fear, right there! No melted face or leather glove could ever compare.
This is the fear of a collapsing dichotomy – the “thin membrane” between nightmares and reality has been ripped through; the difference has started to dissolve. If you can’t tell the difference between a dream and reality, you can’t trust anything and you’ll never be safe.
Wes Craven’s superb New Nightmare (1994) brought something new to the franchise, something beyond mere dreams… so let’s leave that one for later.
Twists, jumps, and destabilisation
The basic idea of using an unannounced shift into a dream has a longer history in horror, of course, though it’s more often used to provide a jump scare. Carrie (1976) uses it as a stinger, complete with reversed footage, for extra unreality. So does Event Horizon (1997) and Friday the 13th (1980) (perhaps). To have a villain return suddenly, slamming into a shot of the protagonist in bed, screaming – that will always be a classic ending.
A descendant of these films are the ones in which the vanquished killer suddenly returns in a coda that makes no sense, only to skip the screaming-in-bed scene and cut straight to the credits. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) is one example. Dropping into a nightmare may be a great way to give one final scare, but if the movie’s over anyway, why not follow the Thriller tradition and drop all rationality anyway? The film’s done! You don’t need it any more! Go out in a blaze of irrational glory.
That’s the approach of Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980). The journalist hero wakes up in bed, heads off to the airport on a story, and then spends the whole film fighting off a zombie attack (and I’m using the term zombie loosely – these creeps are partially-melted radiation-damaged maniacs armed with machine guns). At the end when all seems on the point of being lost, he sees his companion killed – at which point he sits bolt upright in bed. He then receives a lead on a story, heads off to the airport, and… the film begins again. The irrationality in the moebius-strip twist ending is the film’s greatest asset. Just before the audience has time to shout “WHAT?” the credits kick in. Is there anything sweeter in cinema?
Even a film like Dreamscape (1984) that involves psychics battling each other inside other people’s dreams (!) can’t resist a bit of additional last-minute uncertainty regarding the status of reality. Dennis Quaid’s character, having previously romanced ‘sleep scientist’ Kate Capshaw inside her dream, ends up battling an evil psychopath who takes on the form of a snake inside the post-apocalyptic nightmares of US President Christopher Plummer (!!). After that’s all resolved, and everything is set to rights, Quaid and Capshaw take a train ride and flirt with each other. All of this is disrupted when a train conductor from within Kate’s previous dream asks them for tickets. They look at each other in confusion, and – roll credits. At first this seems quite fun, but… if they can’t even tell if they’re awake or not, can they ever really be sure they killed that psychopath? Is the president even safe? As the credits roll, the more you allow yourself to think about it, the more unnerving it all gets.
Released the same year as the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (and, oddly, also featuring a villain with claws on one hand), Dreamscape was for many years probably the greatest film about sending spies into dreams, then leaving it unclear as to whether those spies have escaped from the dream. Then, of course, Inception (2010) came along.
In Inception uncertainty is milked for dread and unease. It does it more constantly throughout the film that Dreamscape attempted, but the ending is comparable. Again, the top spy was successful, and he got out… or did he? Inception may not be a horror (though the trope of an insane, possibly dead wife in the cellar certainly shows a nod in that direction). But it is a film about unstable realities (“this world is not real”), and it ends the only way a great movie in that tradition can successfully end – on a note of playful, disturbing ambiguity.
If you resolve everything, and leave people clear about what was real, and what wasn’t, you kill the threat and neutralise the experience. If cinema is a collective dream, and we wake when the lights go up and we walk back into the foyer, then Inception’s dreams-within-dreams are just levels below our own collective dream. Did he get out? Of course not – he’s still there, trapped inside the celluloid, locked inside the DVD.
Elm Street movies aside, using an unannounced dream for scares mid-film is less common. But it’s worth calling out one classic example – An American Werewolf in London (1981). Like Carrie, Event Horizon et al., An American Werewolf in London manufactures a pretty great jump-scare by using dream logic to give us an unexpected threat. What makes Werewolf so great, is that it goes one step further in setting up audience expectations, by having a reasonably scary dream sequence come first. That Nazi ogre attack is fairly clearly a dream, though. Once the protagonist wakes up in his hospital bed, the audience is reassured that we are back in ‘reality’ – and are completely unprepared when nurse Jenny Agutter pulls open the curtains and one final pig-faced Nazi goon suddenly crashes in to stab her to death.
The shock of being suddenly attacked is a decent enough scare in itself – ably assisted by the great soundtrack and editing – but there’s additional dread and terror from the fact that the film is no longer completely ‘trustworthy’. If we can have dreams within dreams, and monsters within those dreams, beyond even the wolves and hallucinatory (?) zombies of the ‘real world’ – well, there’s just no telling what might reach out and grab you next. The audience is left discombobulated, and that remains the case for the rest of the film. This is no mean feat to pull off – once you can’t trust a film, the stakes can be lowered, disbelief can no longer be suspended, and the audience’s investment collapses like a soufflé. An American Werewolf in London performs a tremendous high-wire trick, pulling the rug out from the audience just enough to keep them wary, but no more. This trick is key for any horror that invokes uncertainty about reality itself – keeping the audience still cares, right until the very end.
The uncanny dread of the dream world
Shifts into dreams can still be fertile ground for horror even when they are clearly signposted, especially when you’ve set the audience’s expectations that something is living inside the dream, waiting for the dreamer. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies do this, it’s true – not all that franchise’s dreams are unannounced, after all – but there are other examples. The trick is to paint the contents of the dream as a genuine threat.
To do that, you need something more terrifying than a wacky burn victim with a hat. Freddy is, after all, a rational figure in an irrational world. He loves killing children, so he’s going to lure them in and destroy them – both as an end to itself, and also as a vengeance upon the families of Springwood. His motivations are clear. You can have a conversation with him, if he’s in the mood, and he’ll make sense. Freddy uses dream logic as a weapon, but can even have that dream logic turned against him, but he himself is not governed by dream logic. Aside from his supernatural powers and general appearance, he’s kind of like us.
In Paperhouse (1988), based loosely on the novel Marianne Dreams (1958) we have something different. A young girl, Anna, suffers from worsening glandular fever, and has a series of dreams in which she sees a house she had previously drawn. As she continues to draw new elements of the house in her waking hours, those things appear in the dream, where they have the rough, wonky appearance of her drawings. These include a little boy, whom she befriends. As she spend longer and longer in the dream-world, her sickness worsens, which conveys a sense of that world having a negative effect on her.
This is a children’s fantasy rather than a pure horror, but it does have one supremely unsettling sequence. After drawing her father, an emotionally distant absentee, beside the house looking somewhat angry, Anna panics and scribbles out his head. This creates a deep sense of foreboding and terror for the audience as Anna next falls asleep – the now that we have been provided with a rough sense of the logic between the real world drawing and the dream-world contents, we have no idea what to expect from the scribbled-out and menacing figure. Will his face be ripped up, or blank, or drawn over? Will he have been dropped into the dream-world looking like the monkey in Cronenberg’s The Fly (1987), turned inside-out and howling? All is revealed when, on her next journey to the house, she sees him silhouetted on a hillside…
(Paperhouse can be seen in full here – the sequence in question runs from 0:52 to 1:08: https://archive.org/details/Paperhouse1988Movie )
Wake in fright – and confusion
Horror aide, it’s also worth calling out the thriller work of Brian De Palma. Depending on which cut of Raising Cain (1992) you see, the logic of the relationship between its dreams and reality alters, but in either cut remains enjoyably unclear.
As Lolita Davidovich toys with the idea of an affair, she buys a gift for her lover, places it in a bedside drawer… or does she? At one point she’s dreaming, but then seems awake, then is killed, then wakes up, then checks the drawer to see if the gift is there. The audience is on the back foot entirely by this point. If the gift isn’t there, what does it mean? Did she only put it there in her sleep? Has the killer found it? Did she remove it in real life?
This incoherence would sink a lesser film, but De Palma is able to milk it for tension. We don’t know how much of what we’ve seen was real, and we don’t know how much danger Davidovich is in, or what she should do next – and neither does she. This fear, that of waking from a dream and then being uncertain as to what is or isn’t real, is a recognisable (if mostly uncommon) situation for most of us, but De Palma is able to take it and derive enormous dramatic power from it.
They didn’t mind using the h-word to sell Raising Cain, either, which is a nice change from today’s films that insist on using the inoculated terms elevated horror, post horror or so on. The film is more a thriller than anything, but it’s in part a baroque homage to Psycho, and the trailer is happy to warn us that “the ultimate horror… is in the mind.”
De Palma does a similar dream-trick (to slightly lesser success) in Passion (2012), and takes the conceit to its extreme in Femme Fatale (2002), in which an enormous chunk of the film is suddenly revealed to have been dreamt. Femme Fatale, fun, though it is, lacks the intense post-dream confusion that makes Raising Cain so unsettling, and so great.
Next time, we’ll look at hallucinations, whether induced by drugs or psychosis. Until then, I’ll see you… in dreams.
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