Dream sequences are an interesting tool in the world of filmmaking, they can serve various purposes. In a film, a dream can show us a characters fears, worries or goals. Usually they’ll show us what a character fears the most, what he is fighting against. When used properly a dream can even develop part of the films story, take us further down the main characters thought process and journey. I personally love dream sequences in films because they explore the strange and mysterious world of dreams, which can be a pretty wild place to visit don’t you think? The human mind is one of the most mysterious things about life and so when films explore it, I indulge.
Hitchcocks Spellbound (1945) has a dream sequence entirely designed by the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dahli
Films that truly dive into the dream world are a special lot for me because usually dream sequences will get wild and nonsensical, just like real dreams. Some directors are known for really exploring dream logic, amongst them Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Michel Gondry so you’ll see a lot of their films on these articles. I hope you guys enjoy them and don’t forget to check out part two where I dive even deeper into dream land! For now, dream on my friends; and enjoy the following article, hope you have a fun time reading it and revisiting some of these amazing films centered on dreams.
Title: 8 ½ (1963)
Synopsis: 8 ½ is the story of Guido Anselmi, a film director who’s having a hell of a time trying to decide what his next film is going to be about. The studio wants him to make a commercial science fiction film (going as far as constructing the sets) but he wants to make his own film, dealing with themes and subject matter he cares about. He cares not for reality, but for the dream worlds he conjures up in his mind, often times Guido will just drift off and immerse himself into his dreams. A huge part of this film is composed of dreams, Guido goes in and out of them, escaping from reality. In the middle of all the madness, Guido has to juggle the women in his life; he’s reaching a crossroads where he has to finally settle for ‘the one’.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: When Guido is in the middle of a traffic jam, he drifts off into a dream where he leaves the traffic jam behind and suddenly finds himself flying through the skies, only to be pulled down by his producer as he is floating above a beach. The best dream sequence in the film has Guido confronting all of the women in his life in the same room, trying to control them with a whip, as if they were wild horses!
Title: American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes
Synopsis: Lester Burnham is a man who has had it with his ho-hum, same-o same-o life. He wants to feel alive again! What is he to do in order to escape the redundant life style he has fallen into? He quits his day job, smokes weed with his teenage neighbor (who sells it to him) and pumps iron so he can look good naked again that’s what! This film analyzes the American family with a microscope; what happens when marriage looses its steam? When parents have lost all connection with their children? Or when parents physically abuse them? The film also takes an interesting look at mid-life crisis through the eyes of Lester Burnham, a character masterfully played by the one and only Kevin Spacey.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: Lester has sexual fantasies with his daughters teenage girl friend, so every time he escapes into these fantasies he imagines the teenage girl bathing in thousands of red flowers.
Dream Talk: “It’s hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and my heart is about to burst, and then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it; and then it just flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for my stupid little life”
Title: The Science of Sleep (2006)
Director: Michel Gondry
Synopsis: Stephan is a graphic artist whose just gotten a new job designing magazine covers. He’s trying to cope with reality as best as he can, but it gets extremely difficult for him when his dreams and his real life keep getting all mixed up. Half of the time Stephan doesn’t know if he’s sleeping or if he’s awake! Things get even more complicated when he falls for his next door neighbor, Stephanie. Can Stephanie understand and live with Stephan the eternal dreamer?
Stand Out Dream Sequence: In his dreams Stephan is the boss of the company he works for. So, people talk to him as if he was God! Everyone at the office bows down to him and asks for his approval to everything. As we hear the song ‘Instinct Blues’ by the White Stripes, Stephan constructs a city made out of cardboard with the wave of his hands.
Dream Talk: “Tonight I’ll show you how dreams are prepared. People think it’s a simple and easy process, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts, then we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day, mixed with some memories from the past. ”
Title: Take Shelter (2011)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Synopsis: Curtis is your every day regular Joe. He’s got a beautiful wife and lovely daughter. He lives in a beautiful home with them, and apparently everything is running fine. That is until Curtis begins having these dreadful nightmares about a coming storm! Are these nightmares premonitions of horrible events to come? Is Curtis going crazy? Or are his dreams trying to tell him something? This film blew me away because of the way it analyzes how the growing problems in the world affect the working class regular Joe. The film has a dreadful, ominous vibe going for it and an amazing message, highly recommend checking this one out.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: Curtis walks through a lonely street holding his daughter in his arms when suddenly he sees this school of birds forming strange shapes in the sky, seconds later the birds come rushing towards him and his daughter passing by them at lightning fast speed! Then for no apparent reason, the birds start falling from the sky, dead on the floor.
Dream Talk: “Sleep well in your beds, because if this thing comes true, there aint going to be anymore! You think I’m crazy? Listen up! There’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen and not one of you is prepared for it! ”
Director: Terry Gilliam
Synopsis: Sam Lowry is a man that feels the weight of ‘the system’ on his shoulders. He works on a boring repetitive job, lives in a small cramped up apartment and lives a life bogged down by bureaucracy and laws; his only escape? His dreams! In his dreams he is a warrior who sprouts wings, wears shinny armor, wields a sword, saves damsels in distress and fights giant samurais! Back in the real world he has to deal with the pressure his mother puts on him to be successful and move up the social ladder. He’s also secretly (and madly) in love with a rebel; will he ever consummate his love? Or will this worlds anti sex laws not allow it? Basically,
is Gilliam mixing two of his favorite sources of inspiration: George Orwell’s 1984 and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, one look at this film and it should be quite obvious. It’s no surprise that this films original title was going to be ‘1984 ½’! Basically, this is the most purely Gilliam film of all if you ask me. His hate for all things bureaucratic and systematic is clearly evident here. Brazil ’s also got a bit of Don Quixote in it; in his dreams Sam fights giant creatures while trying to save the love of his life. This film is arguably Gilliam’s masterpiece, but he’s done so many great films, I always find it difficult to choose a favorite. Brazil
Stand Out Dream Sequence: Sam hates the big corporation he works for and the proverbial system that he lives under. So when he dreams, he sees his boss as a giant samurai whom he proceeds to fight with his sword.
Dream Talk: Sam doesn’t talk much in his dreams; he takes action!
Title: An American Werewolf in
Director: John Landis
Synopsis: A couple of buddies go to
for a backpacking adventure, too bad for them they get lost in the moors, where a Werewolf roams! Things get worse when one of them gets brutally slaughtered by the werewolf, while the other one gets away with a nasty scratch. Unfortunately, getting scratched by a werewolf means you’ll turn into a werewolf yourself come next full moon! John Landis directs what is quite possibly the best werewolf film ever made. The make up effects by Rick Baker is nothing short of amazing. Also: this was the film that influenced Michael Jackson to do his thriller video; so much so that he got John Landis to direct. England
Stand Out Dream Sequence: This film is filled with various stand out dream sequences because when David gets scratched by the werewolf, he begins to have these vivid and horrifying nightmares! For example, one nightmare has his whole family shot by a gang of machine gun totting mutant Nazis! Another stand out dream sequence has David running wild through the woods, following a reindeer. The chase ends with David viciously eating the deer!
Title: The Big Lebowsky (1998)
Directors: The Coen Brothers
Synopsis: Some gangsters (actually nihilists to be more accurate) confuse ‘The Dude’ with somebody else and end up peeing on his rug, the on that tied the room together. And so begins The Dude’s journey to get his rug back. But that’s really besides the point, the rug is really just a starting point, an excuse for what turns into a very funny trip down the dudes life. The dude is the quintessential laid back dude who doesn’t give a rats ass. He aint going to worry about your wars, or your crazy ass world, he’s here to smoke some ganja, chill the hell out, drink a white Russian or two, and roll some balls at the bowling alley.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: The Dude gets knocked on the head by the crazy nihilists and so he ends up dreaming up this surreal bowling sequence where he is surrounded by beautiful babes who look like Barbarian Warriors of some kind…and he dances with them in this huge musical number!
Title: The Cell (2000)
Director: Tarsem Singh
Synopsis: Catherine Deane is a dream therapist who helps people with psychological problems by going into their minds and sorting things out. She basically goes into your dreams and talks to you in your subconscious. Her biggest challenge has just fallen into her lap: the police has caught a serial killer, he is unconscious and only he knows where his last victim is held. Now, Catherine must try and connect with the killer unconscious mind to try and decipher where his last victim is before the victim dies! Will Catherine stand the serial killers warped mind? Will it prove to be too dark a place for her to visit?
Stand Out Dream Sequence: When Catherine goes into the killers mind, one of the first things she encounters is a horse. She analyzes it for a couple of seconds before a group of crystal slabs fall from above and segment the horse into various pieces, the crystal slabs allow us to see the horses internal organs! As she goes deeper into this dark world, she finally encounters the killer…who sees himself as a God Emperor, sitting on a throne!
Dream Talk: “My world…my rules”
Title: Dune (1984)
Director: David Lynch
Synopsis: Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, the sole heir to the Atreides throne. He is young, impetuous and about to learn what it is to become a man, to awaken from the slumber. The Royal Atreides family has just inherited the privilege of administering the planet of Arrakis, commonly referred to as ‘Dune’, the planet in which the most precious substance in the galaxy is created: the spice. Problem is that the planet is filled with many enemies to the Emperor of the Universe, namely, the elusive Fremen who live hiding in the dangerous dessert. On top of this, many plot against the Atreides family and seek to destroy them. Will The Atreides successfully transfer their empire to Arrakis? How long will the Fremen stand the oppressive nature of the Emperors rule? Will Paul stand up and lead them into the rebellion? The first and last time that Lynch directed a science fiction film, and an epic of this magnitude, some hate it, some love it, I adore it!
Stand Out Dream Sequence: This film is composed of many dream sequences because ‘the spice’ when taken, will put you in a trance like state where you dream and hallucinate. And Paul constantly takes the spice to see these visions. In one dream sequence Paul dreams he has learned how to control the giant worms of Arrakis! He dreams that water will finally fall on the planet!
Dream Talk: “Father! The Sleeper has awakened!”
Title: Eraserhead (1977)
Director: David Lynch
Synopsis: This was Lynch’s first film ever; it took him six years to film it! He filmed it while in film school! And it’s one of the films that started the whole midnight show craze of the 70’s! It will also be one of the weirdest movies you will ever see in your whole freaking life. Guaranteed! Eraserhead tells the story of Henry, a young man who’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant! The family wants to meet him and she wants to move in with him. But are they in love? Do they love their offspring which just so happens to be a mutated baby of sorts that appears to be sick? Is Henry ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood? Or does he want to erase the whole thing from his mind and pretend it never happened? Weirdest part about this movie is that even scenes that aren’t dream sequences feel like dream sequences!
Stand Out Dream Sequence: One scene has Henry entering some sort of pencil factory. One of the workers drills the contents of Henry’s brain and turns it into the eraser on top of a pencil. Symbolisms anyone? Another stand out dream sequence shows us a girl with inflated cheeks, singing a song on a stage as she steps over giant sperm that fall from above.
Dream Talk: “In heaven, everything is fine, you’ve got your good things and I got mine”
Title: Nightmare on
Elm Street Series (1984-2010)
Synopsis: You know the drill boys and girls, Freddy Krueger visits you in your dreams. If he kills you in your dreams you die in real life! Freddy was a pedophile who was murdered by the parents of the kids he abused. Moments before he dies, demons offer him the power of controlling dreams, which he in turn uses to psychologically and physically torture those that killed him. I’ve always loved these movies because they were a showcase for gooey, slimy, gory make up effects. Every death on these films was a special moment where we would get to see some sort of crazy dream come true.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: This film is filled with many cool dream sequences, in fact, I could go on and do one of these posts entirely about the cool death sequences in Nightmare on
Elm Street films, but instead I’ll just mention three of my favorite ones. The first is always the best…that sequence where a girl gets her stomach slit by Freddy’s claws and then her body starts spinning in the air around the room while dripping her blood all over the walls and the bed, now that’s a memorable dream sequence! Another favorite is when Freddy turns into a giant worm and starts eating Patricia Arquette! And finally my all time favorite is the one in A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors where Freddy rips this kids veins out of his arms and legs and uses them like the strings on a puppet, effectively puppeteering the poor teenager to his death. Memorable in deed!
Dream Talk: “Those are ancient dream demons. Supposedly they roam the dreams of the living until the find the most evil, twisted human being imaginable. Then they give him the power to cross the line and turn our nightmares into reality”
Title: Jacobs Ladder (1990)
Director: Adrian Lyne
Synopsis: Jacob is a man living between two worlds. In one world he sees demons haunting him at every corner, in the other he lives a semi-normal life with his hot girlfriend. Is he seeing demons? Is he traveling between two dimensions? Is he going crazy? Just what are these nightmarish visions he keeps having? Adrian Lyne is an awesome director; to me he is one of the greats. His films always have this beautiful look to them no matter what the subject matter is. Even the hellish nightmare that is Jacob’s Ladder has a beauty to it within its dark demonic visions. Highly recommend this head trip of a movie, it is dark and twisted. It will mess with your head and it will take you down the deepest, darkest corners of insanity. Highly recommend you take the trip.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: One scene has Jacob being rolled into an asylum. The place is dark and dirty and filled with looneys left and right. Deformed people look at him from the shadows, demonic figures seem to creep and crawl from the darkness as he screams “I’m not crazy!”
Dream Talk: “If you’re frightened of dying, and your holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth”
Title: Trainspotting (1996)
Director: Danny Boyle
Synopsis: Trainspotting is all about a group of heroin junkies trying to survive in the middle of the insanity they call their lives. I mean, some feel like they can manage a ‘normal’ life within their drug addiction, while others are completely out of control. Will they ever choose the quintessential good life? Or will they stay stuck in the dark sleep of Kahli?
Stand Out Dream Sequence: One scene has everybody super high on heroin, and incredulous as it may sound one of these junkies is actually a mother! Her baby is comfortably sleeping in it’s bed while momma gets high on heroin. Well at one point, while everybody is high on their drug trip they see the baby crawling through the walls of the house! Another stand out dream sequence has the main character drop a pill in a very disgusting looking toilet. He needs the pill so badly that he starts to search for the pill in the middle of the shit filled toilet; he goes so deep that he ends up entirely going into the toilet and swimming in a dark endless void.
Dream Talk: “Heroin makes you constipated. The heroin from my last hit was fading, and the suppositories had yet to melt”
Title: The Fly (1986)
Director: David Cronenberg
Synopsis: In this remake of The Fly we meet a scientist called Seth Brundle. His mission? To successfully manage to teleport a human being from one place to another! His research and investigations are getting the attention of the science crowd and so, it isn’t long before he has a writer following him around trying to get an interview from him. When he finally agrees to let the writer in (the writer is played by a very luscious looking Geena Davis) he also ends up having an affair with her. Problems begin when Brundle decides to test his teleporting machine on himself! Will the experiment succeed? Or will it have terrifying side effects on him? This film is quintessential Cronenberg, it plays with his favorite themes of sex and violence and also, it’s a remake that tops the original in my opinion.
Stand Out Dream Sequence: Brundle becomes one with a fly that manages to sneak into the teleportation pod with him, the computer merges him with the fly! Now he is half human, half fly! After this, he impregnates Geena Davis and she becomes worried that she might end up having a little fly-baby. Her worries manifest in the form of this horrible nightmare she has where she gives birth to a giant larva! Gross me out!
Dream Talk: “I don’t want tests, tests can’t guarantee anything. The baby could start out normal, and then become...I want an abortion! I’ll do it myself if I have to!”
Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2006)
Director: Michel Gondry
Synopsis: Michel Gondry is a director known for exploring the dream world which is why it doesn’t surprise that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is basically one long dream sequence! You see, Joel Barish is a man looking to erase an ex-lover from his mind and in order to achieve this he goes to a company called Lacuna Inc. which promises they can erase any unwanted memory from your brain circuits. When the scientists from Lacuna Inc. start meddling with Joel’s memories and dreams, we get to see the whole trip. Joel starts running through his life memories, and after a while he isn’t entirely sure if he wants them erased! Will he get his darling Clementine erased from his mind forever? Or will they learn to accept each other for who they really are, warts and all?
Stand Out Dream Sequence: At one moment as the scientists from Lacuna Inc. begin to explore Joel’s memories they venture into his childhood and so we end up seeing Joel as a little kid, hiding from his mom underneath the kitchen table, and taking a bath on the kitchen sink. It’s a pretty funny moment. Jim Carrey is fantastic in those scenes where he acts like a child, it’s a testament to this comedians acting abilities.
Dream Talk: “I loved being bathed on the sink, it’s such a feeling of security”
If you enjoyed this article check out it's sequel: "Dreams Are My Speciality" Memorable Dream Sequences On Film (Part II)