The Best Dream Sequences

Charles Graham Dixon,

Ever dream of being chased or having your teeth fall out with painless and effortless ease? I sometimes dream of these things, as well other classic scenarios like winning a load of money, feeling like I’m running in gloop or trying to punch someone only to feel my hand move in slow motion until the moment of impact is a tender stroke rather than a powerful strike.

The power of film is that it can vividly bring to life the often abstract and inexplicable images and sounds we encounter while we sleep. From joy to pain and from the rational to the surreal, some of the great directors have bought our sleeping thoughts to life on the screen.

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

[Dream sequence starts at 1:30] This scene manages to be both unnerving and beautiful. Friedkin captures the hopeless, bleak inevitability of nightmares where everything is so agonisingly out of reach. The simplest tasks become arduous and often impossible. In this case, Father Karras unsuccessfully tries to reach his mother on a New York block that was once so familiar but is now malevolent and painful. Symbols of Karras’ guilt over his mother’s death and the imagery of Pazuzu, the demon inside Regan, give this sequence its timeless poignancy and point toward Karras’ confrontation with evil later in the film.

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1996)

Lynch’s work operates, to a large extent, on a subconscious level. His films are not there to be explained or ‘got’. They should wash over the audience, all of us experiencing them rather than understanding them. Like dreams –  which are so often abstract and inexplicable – Lynch’s work takes us to a place that shares many similarities with our sleeping thoughts. In this case, Lynch takes us to our nightmares. Imagine Patricia Arquette, your beautiful girlfriend, turning into Robert Blake aka The Mystery Man while in bed? No thanks.

An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

Despite seeing American Werewolf countless times, this scene still manages to surprise me every time due to its sheer overblown oddness. What was John Landis thinking? What exactly are these creatures and why, for the love of God, are they Nazis? The most rational explanation must surely stem from Landis’ Jewish upbringing in suburban Chicago where knowledge of Nazi atrocities and a love of movie monsters helped to create this insane sequence.

Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005)

This dream sequence is as typically unsettling as you would expect from Haneke. The creeping paranoia of the film’s central character is abstractly bought to life via his dream. Haneke manages to capture the sense that movement and active thought can feel restricted during nightmares. You feel scared but you feel almost uncontrollably curious. You want to move but feel you must stay. It is a horrible and very nightmarish sensation and Haneke’s vision of a childhood setting somehow twisted to become something alien and fearful gives this sequence its power.

Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945)

It would simply be wrong not to include this Salvador Dali-created dream sequence. Dali’s talents were perfectly utilised in a scene that almost writes the rulebook of surreal, subconscious and psychoanalytical imagery.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

This scene is genuinely not worth trying to explain or interpret as there is no right or wrong answer. Seriously though, who is the grinning woman who appears to have contracted mumps from a squirrel? Is she good or evil, and what are those worm-like creatures? The swooning, sickeningly cloying sound of the calliope music and the woman’s half-crazed grin of satisfaction and pride as she crushes the creatures, releasing a torrent of gunk, provide the perfect elements to this utterly bizarre dream/nightmare.

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

By picking on a nice girl with a psychotic, religious freak mother, humiliating her by dowsing her in pigs blood in front of her entire school and bombarding her with tampons in the shower, you’re likely to feel slightly guilty about it. You also run the risk of having some pretty nasty nightmares. Yes, we all know Carrie’s hands are about to shoot out of the grave dug into the embers of her incinerated house, but De Palma perfectly expresses the creeping, non-reality of nightmares with his use of soft-focus cinematography, romantically contemplative music and the painfully slow and floating human movement that seems to exist only in our dreams. 

The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)

It’s all about the little things in the Coen brothers' films. These brothers have the knack of subtly inserting small details that are hilarious and, via their simplicity, manage to sum up the era they appear in. In Burn After Reading it was the ridiculously funny photo portrait of Vladimir Putin in the embassy office, his far-reaching and widely feared power reduced to impotence and insignificance in one shot. In The Big Lebowski Saddam Hussein is cleaning bowling shoes and handing them to customers. Saddam is mentioned early on in the film while The Dude pays for milk by cheque and as is the case with many dreams, he pops up in The Dude’s subconscious, the supposed terror and tyranny of his reign rendered utterly ridiculous by his day job in a bowling alley.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)

James Cameron is, by all accounts, a nightmare to work with and a true tyrant on set. His films can be overblown, obnoxious and sentimental. But the man certainly knows how to show humans suffering disaster on a grand scale, a valuable skill if nothing else. His vision of a nuclear apocalypse is notable for the brilliant use of sound as Sarah Connor shakes the chain-link fence, her blood-curdling scream and the fact that we get to see her reduced to a mass of peeling, blistering skin, which gives way to her skeleton.

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