What happens to us when we sleep? How does our collective and individual subconscious influence the way we exist both awake and dreaming? It’s roughly half our lives, so time spent in the subconscious realms, land of the dead and places beyond mean a lot to our existence as a complete life cycle. There are many films out there that explore these concepts. Some visually, some emotionally but always with a good deal of creativity and imagination. From virtual prisms to nocturnal demons to tangible alternate realities and the deities that dwell therein, it’s a complex, mysterious sub-genre! Here are my personal top ten..
10. Neil Jordan’s In Dreams
A psychic link is established early on between a small town housewife (Anette Bening) and a bizarre, elusive serial killer (Robert Downey Jr). But why are they connected? What do the visions she has even mean, manifesting to her in vague images and abstract impressions that only suggest the evil lurking out there? Jordan is a filmmaker obsessed with mood and style but also dutiful in making sure that such things serve that story and have weight. This is a gorgeous looking psychological fairytale with an avant-garde performance from Downey, breathtaking visuals and excellent supporting work from Aiden Quinn, Stephen Rea and Paul Guilfoyle.
9. Calvin Reeder’s The Rambler
This abnormally surreal piece of midnite movie madness sees a stoic Dermot Mulroney as the titular Rambler on a post-prison meander through a version of America’s southwest that’s been poisoned by abstract qualities and turned on its head. It isn’t explicitly about the subconscious other than a subplot in which a bemused scientist (James Cady) records people’s dreams onto a VHS doohickey, an endeavour that goes wrong in the most hilarious of ways (think Scanners except bloodier). However, I’ve rarely seen a film that captures nightmare logic like this gnarly little piece does. It isn’t ever said whether the Rambler’s journey is all a dream or not, but the feeling one gets as he ambles dazedly from one bizarre encounter to the next, the nonsensical fashion of language used and the overall feeling that one has been lost in some threatening netherworld where sensory input has been scrambled and people are indistinct grotesqueries is overpowering. Be warned with this one, there’s nothing pleasant about it, it exists purely to shock, disgust and disorient, areas in which it thoroughly earns its keep.
8. Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape
The most playful film on this list sees Dennis Quaid as a young psychic recruited by government scientist Max Von Sydow to enter the dreams of the US president (Eddie Albert), who has been having some disturbing nightmares. There’s a conspiracy afoot involving a shady government big-shot (Christopher Plummer) and time is running out to decipher the mystery. This is a colourful kaleidoscope of a flick with dazzling special effects, especially in the impressive dream sequences. A giant cobra rears it’s head, mutants leer out from a nuclear wasteland, an eerie, endless staircase descends into darkness and the visual aspect overall is exceptional.
7. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street
Dreams get the slasher treatment with lucrative and legendary results in this lean, mean horror flick that would go on to span a mammoth franchise. Using clever practical effects, an ambient score and Robert Englund’s now iconic performance as dream demon Fred Krueger, Craven sculpts an atmospheric aesthetic for the ages. Johnny Depp’s first role in cinema as well, and he gets eaten by a bed no less. I dare you to google the true story that inspired Craven to write this film, you might just have some nightmares of your own.
6. Satoshi Kon’s Paprika
Dreams as a collective and quite literal parade come tumbling into our world when a therapist’s machine to enter them is stolen by a terrorist. This film truly breaks some boundaries in what storytelling can do and show with animation, and requires several viewings to appreciate the full scope of vision. Kon and his animators thoroughly paint in all the corners and write a dense, chaotic script full of moving parts and wild ideas in telling the story of dreams run amok, with a deft subplot about cinema itself thrown in seemingly just for fun.
5. Jamin Winans’s Ink
This is one I’ve been championing for years, a low budget indie that defies description in ways that you won’t see coming. The multifaceted story is free from the bonds of time and space and sees a mysterious supernatural demon named Ink kidnap a young girl (Quinn Hunchar) and drag her off into the dream realms for some vaguely nefarious purpose which soon becomes appallingly clear. Meanwhile, the forces of light and darkness that rule over our unconscious bodies while we sleep both race to track Ink down and engage in a furious war for the girl’s soul. That seems like a chunk of exposition, doesn’t it? Well it doesn’t even hint at the wonders, revelations, trips to alternate dimensions, flashbacks to several different pasts and narrative twists to come. This is a gorgeously moving fantasy film that works wonders with a scant budget but also gets surprisingly deep and psychological in exploring its human characters, a mini masterpiece that I will recommend until the end of time.
4. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
This is technically my favourite film of all time but I’m trying to gauge this list on which films provide a provocative and comprehensive view of dreams and the subconscious, so here we are at #4. Lynch’s challenging masterpiece involves many aspects and moving parts, but a big influence on narrative is the creeping presence of mysterious spiritual beings that reside in the mythical plane of The Black Lodge and manifest in dreams. Protagonist Laura Palmer has harrowing nightmares that present an illogical, fractured view of the dark forces amassing against her and others who live in the Pacific Northwest town that is filled with secrets. David Bowie also shows up, literally escaping a tangible nightmare very briefly to incoherently warn his FBI buddies about something before being dragged off back to the netherworld.
3. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky
Yes this is a remake of a Spanish film that also starred Penelope Cruz in the same role she plays here, and I’ve had the discussion many times on which film is better. This one speaks to me far more than the original though, Crowe’s hazy hued, autumn in New York aesthetic is gorgeous and don’t get me started on the amazing soundtrack. Tom Cruise is a bratty publishing heir who discovers the danger of his ways in encounters with two very different women, angelic Cruz and unstable Cameron Diaz. The story is about much more of course but to say too much here would be to ruin it. It’s a fantastic piece of heartbreaking filmmaking with a haunting conclusion and solid supporting turns from Jason Lee, Tilda Swindon, Michael Shannon, Timothy Spall, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Alicia Witt and Kurt Russell.
2. Christopher Nolan’s Inception
An obvious choice no doubt, but this is every bit the magnificent game changer its reputed to be, and a blockbuster with a brain in its head. Combining elements of corporate espionage with dreaming, Nolan tells a magisterial, hugely ambitious tale of Leonardo DiCaprio’s thief of the subconscious and his crew in pulling off a dangerous, near impossible task. What really makes the film work for me though is the relationship with his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard) and how it highlights the toll that entering dreams would take on your psyche as the forces that sculpt reality begin to crack and there’s danger of getting lost in these realms. It’s so much more than just a pseudo heist flick that happens to take place inside a dream world, there’s psychological depth, a rubik’s cube of a narrative to feast on and some truly heartrending moments when we discover just how much power the unconscious mind has over our souls.
1. Tarsem Singh’s The Cell
The hunt for a heinous serial killer ends with his dramatic capture in a spectacular FBI raid. End of story? Not so much, as he’s in a permanent coma and his last victim is still out there somewhere in captivity, with time running out. Jennifer Lopez is a compassionate child psychologist who uses futuristic technology to enter the man’s terrifying subconscious and look for clues, as well as appeal to the side of him that still retains innocence. Singh is a master stylistic storyteller and the images, sound, costumes and visual dreamscapes on display are like eye candy for the spirit and tell this story in an otherworldly fashion that I can’t even describe here. Vincent D’Onofrio is hauntingly complex as the killer, Vince Vaughn grounded and intense as the agent spearheading the search and the eclectic cast includes Patrick Bauchau, Dean Norris, Tara Subkoff, Peter Sarsgaard, Jack Conley, Dylan Baker, Marieanne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Pruitt Taylor Vince, scream queen Musetta Vander and the late great character actor James Gammon. This is top of my list and one of my favourite films of all time, partly for the gentle yet arresting way it dives into the psyches of several characters, also the pure artistic innovation present in the visuals that are constantly changing, shaping and mapping out the subconscious using picturesque poetry, startlingly graphic horror and an ever present, bewitchingly ethereal score from Howard Shore.
Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share some of your favourites of this genre in the comments!! More to come as well!