Movies are the natural home of dream sequences. What else are movies themselves but the dreams of artists made real? And using everything from actors to animatronics, CGI to miniatures, directors can put anything they can imagine in front of you, just like your own mind can in a dream regardless of physics, the passage of time, visual and emotional content or logic.
A list of the best dream sequences could be endless, and most of the ones you’ve read will include Gregory Peck’s dream from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), designed by none other than Salvador Dali, or the surrealist bowling porno Gutterballs, dreamed by The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski.
But we’re not after just the weirdest dream sequences (even though plenty of those below certainly are). They’re often a best hits compilation from the director in question while slipping crucial character information under our guard.
Suburban Nazi Monster Attack – An American Werewolf In London
Monsters, fair enough – David (David Naughton) has been bitten by a werewolf and is already becoming one when he wakes up in a London hospital tended by the winsome Alex (Jenny Agutter). But what do Nazis brandishing Uzis have to do with anything?
Director John Landis might just have been referencing the great grindhouse horror traditions of his youth where anything horrible was fair game. But the suddenness and brutality of the attack, where they make David watch as they blow away his brother, sister and parents before slitting his throat, says something about his terrified, traumatised state of mind after losing his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) on the moors weeks before.
It was also cinema’s most infamous dream-within-a-dream, where Alex offers to let some light in to make David feel better and opens the curtains to be set upon by one of the monsters from the previous dream.
End sequence – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Popularly known as ‘beyond the infinite’, astronaut Dave Bowman (Kier Dullea) might be dreaming, or the universe might be dreaming about him, or any combination thereof.
It involves an aged version of himself walking carefully around an ornate hotel room suite with lighted floor panels. Then he’s in the bed and the monolith that features throughout the story shows up across the room. The he’s a baby in a bubble-like womb staring at the nascent Earth.
What does it all mean? Even writer Arthur C Clarke said that if you understood it, he and director Stanley Kubrick hadn’t done their jobs properly.
Opening sequence – 8 1/2
Federico Fellini’s timeless tale about the creative process shows film director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) trying to complete his latest work while his personal life unravels because of all his girl problems.
The first scene is a subtextual symbol of his entire plight, finding himself trapped in a traffic jam with everyone watching him and the car filling up with choking smoke. After hammering at the windows, desperate to get away from the scrutiny and the tiny space that’s getting smaller all the time, he just wants to take to the sky. So he does, soaring into the clouds and tethered like a kite by the ankle.
Agent Cooper’s clues – Twin Peaks
Technically it’s a TV show, though they made two Twin Peaks movies to tie in. And while it simply lays out hints for eccentric FBI investigator Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), it does it in such a wacky, oddball way only David Lynch could wrangle that it deserves special mention.
There’s a dancing dwarf who talks in riddles, a 70’s-era striped carpet, red curtains, suave jazz, the murder victim Laura Palmer herself and a whole lot of enigmatic, subtitled speech (recorded backwards but played back forwards) that lines up the answer to the mystery like ducks in a row. Later in the series, we even find that what Laura whispers to Cooper after kissing him is the identity of her killer. Lynch still holds the title for combining strange but non-threatening images to make the whole so sinister.
Withdrawal – Trainspotting
They’re stupid, but they’re not that stupid. As Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) explains, he and his friends know how destructive skag is, so they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the incredible dose of a high.
But Mark’s going to find out just how destructive it is when his parents lock him in his bedroom to wean him off the gear and his mind turns on him. Sweating, shaking and doubling up with pain in bed, he can only watch as the baby who died in an earlier scene through shocking neglect crawls along the ceiling towards him, as if to deliver vengeance. Its head turns back the wrong way to peer down at him, Exorcist-style, before dropping towards him.
Nuclear holocaust – Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) nightmare gets through on a technicality. Until James Cameron’s 1991 killer robot-killer-from-the-future sequel, we’d never seen such a brutally realistic portrayal of a nuclear blast on screen before.
Watching a playground full of children overlooking Los Angeles on the day Skynet unleashes its first strike, the blinding light precedes the fire and shockwave that tears the rooves off cars, palm trees out of the ground and finally Sarah’s burning flesh right off her bones. If we needed another reminder of the horrors of nuclear weapons after 1985’s The Day After, this was it.
Spoilers! – Jacob’s Ladder
Mild-mannered Vietnam war vet Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) lives a quiet life working for the post office and trying to connect with girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena).
Scared he’s losing his mind after a series of nightmares and hallucinations, Jacob tries to delve into the past he’s tried to forget, discovering he had apparently signed up for experimental treatment during the war. The film doesn’t reveal what’s real and what’s been a dream until the final two minutes, so to say any more would be giving a very clever and mind-bending twist away.
Maggot baby – The Fly
When you’re a sophisticated, intelligent girl you won’t pick just any man to share your bed, but brilliant, eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) proves too charming for reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). Even when he accidentally fuses his DNA with that of a blowfly while experimenting with teleportation and starts sloughing off skin and climbing across the ceiling, she sticks by her man.
But it’s got to play with your head at night, and the thought of what would happen if she had his baby (using the term advisedly) makes a nasty visit to Veronica’s dreams.
The life of a man – The Last Temptation of Christ
This is another one it would be bad form to give away if you haven’t seen it. But Scorsese’s controversial telling of the life of Christ riffs on persistent legends the prophet didn’t die on the cross but went on to marry and have a family with Mary Magdelene.
When Jesus (Willem Dafoe) feels the pull to fulfill his destiny and suffer for the sins of all mankind, Satan visits to tell him there’s a better offer. Whether he truly takes it or not isn’t answered until the final sequence.
Most of the movie – Inception
The mechanical rules of the passage of time and dreams-within-dreams Chris Nolan set up for his intelligent thriller not only make sense after you watch it a few times, they make for the greatest narrative tension as the world of the dreamer affects the weather, gravity and environment in the next levels down.
Technically all the action takes place while the entire cast is asleep on a 10 hour plane flight, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and their team constructing worlds within dreams to fleece industrialist Fischer (Cillian Murphy).
But Nolan can’t help but give us a tease ending, and as the device Cobb uses to tell himself he’s really awake (a spinning top) teeters and rights itself, it’s a sly wink. Was the whole thing a dream after all?