Sweet dreams, enduring nightmares

'Inception' joins a long list of films involving the dream world

by Susan King

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

29 July 2010


LOS ANGELES — As Prospero said in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” — and that’s a message deeply embedded in movies.

Movie dreams (and nightmares) have long entranced, delighted, confused and scared us, the latest being Christopher Nolan’s summer hit “Inception,” which has baffled and mesmerized critics and audiences since its release earlier this month.

Leonardo DiCaprio heads the cast as Dom Cobb, a thief with a particular skill: He enters the dreams of others in order to obtain information. But for his latest caper, he must enter someone’s subconscious and plant an idea instead of stealing one.

Over the years, dream films have come in as many shapes and sizes as dreams themselves — from musicals to thrillers to slasher flicks to psychological dramas to political conspiracies. Here’s a look at some dreamy flicks:

The comic approach: ‘Sherlock Jr.’

Pauline Kael described Buster Keaton’s 1924 comedy masterpiece as a “piece of native American surrealism.” Keaton had used a dream motif to experiment with outlandish, funny slapstick stunts in his 1921 short, “The Playhouse,” and he upped the ante in this farce in which he plays a movie projectionist and janitor who wants to become a detective. Keaton falls asleep while a film is being projected and dreams he’s a Sherlock Holmes detective in a movie revolving around the theft of a pearl necklace.

Dreaming in color: ‘The Wizard of Oz’

The beloved 1939 movie musical based on the L. Frank Baum children’s novel is the ultimate dream film. Dorothy gets hit on the noggin during a twister and dreams she is sent to a Technicolor world filled with Munchkins, witches, flying monkeys, a Scarecrow, a Tin Man, a Cowardly Lion and a Wizard. It’s a dream world that’s both entrancing and frightening — real and surreal at the same time.

Dali-esque: ‘Spellbound’

Alfred Hitchcock ventured into the mind of an amnesiac in his classic 1945 romantic thriller. Gregory Peck plays the young man; Ingrid Bergman is the psychiatrist who helps him solve a murder by going into his subconscious. Peck’s surreal dream sequence was designed by Salvador Dali and influenced many directors over the years including Roman Polanski in his 1965 “Repulsion” and 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

“Traditionally, up to that time, dream scenes in films were always done with swirling smoke, slightly out of focus,” Hitchcock later explained. “This was the convention, and I decided I wanted to go the other way to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the rest of the film itself.”

Post-traumatic stress: ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

John Frankenheimer’s brilliant 1962 political thriller revolves around a U.S. Army patrol during the Korean War whose members are taken prisoner by the North Koreans and brainwashed into believing that one of the men (Laurence Harvey), a weak-willed man with a power-hungry mother (a terrifying Angela Lansbury), is a hero who vanquished the North Korean captors. Arriving home, he receives the Medal of Honor, but another member of the patrol (Frank Sinatra) is beginning to have nightmares about what really happened in Korea.

Teen angst: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

Wes Craven directed this iconic 1984 slasher film starring Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, a wisecracking fiend with razor-sharp knives attached to his right hand, who enters the dreams of several teenagers (one of the teens is a very young Johnny Depp). When he viciously kills them in their dreams, it causes their deaths in reality. The movie spawned six sequels, plus a misguided remake earlier this year.

Political mind games: ‘Dreamscape’

Joseph Ruben directed this 1984 sci-fi thriller about a government-sponsored research experiment in which people can enter the dreams of others. Dennis Quaid plays a young man with amazing psychic powers who is asked by a parapsychologist (Max von Sydow), with whom he previously had worked on ESP experiments, to join the dreamscape program. Eddie Albert plays the president who has nightmares regarding World War III; Christopher Plummer is the head of covert intelligence who wants to use dreamscape to control the president.

Unlocking the mind:

‘The Cell’

In this visually impressive but inane 2000 thriller, Jennifer Lopez plays a cutting-edge psychotherapist who has created a virtual reality device in which she can enter the minds of coma patients and try to coax them to wake up. The FBI contacts her to enter the mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) who slipped into a coma before he let the authorities know where his latest victim is being held prisoner. Director Tarsem Singh was influenced by numerous works of art for the dream and nightmare sequences inside the killer’s brain, including pieces by Damien Hirst, H.R. Giger and Odd Nerdrum.

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