Collins’ Crypt: Dream A Better Dream For Me

Dreams are in roughly 99% of all horror movies - why are they often so lame?

The 1971 AIP effort Murders In The Rue Morgue hits blu-ray today, a rare release from Scream Factory for a film I hadn't seen yet (though it's paired with one I have: The Dunwich Horror, which is quite good). I gave it a look over the weekend and while I enjoyed it, I felt it was a bit too long - partially due to the film's obsession with lengthy dream sequences. The narrative, which has little to do with Poe's short story and is more of a Phantom of the Opera kind of deal, involves an old Grand Guignol theater troupe (led by Jason Robards in a very rare genre role) being picked off one by one by a masked/disfigured killer played by Herbert Lom (who played the actual Phantom in Hammer's version). Since we know who the killer is, the mystery involves why he's doing this - and that mystery is centered on Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann), who dreams of - among other things - a masked man wielding an axe. But it's clearly not Lom that she's seeing, so who is it?

Even the killer orangutan from Poe's story could probably figure it out in about ten minutes, but Madeleine, bless her, takes almost the entire movie to piece together the puzzle that her dreams keep presenting to her. One dream seemed to last nearly five full minutes, and I started wondering how much of the runtime was actually devoted to such sequences (I also wondered if the shorter cut, not available on this blu, focused on trimming these diversions), as it seemed like they were taking up close to a third of the movie's 98 minutes. But then I also started thinking about dreams/nightmares in these movies in general, and how they're used in a variety of ways, not to mention the fact that they're almost expected in a horror film, regardless of the sub-genre. Name me a type of horror movie (slasher, monster, werewolf, etc.) and I can probably name you at least one movie in that area that gave us a nightmare scene - it's not just limited to Freddy Krueger.

Krueger, of course, will forever be associated with horror movie nightmares - it's right there in the title of all of his movies (even Freddy's Dead - the subtitle was The Final Nightmare). Wes Craven's concept was inspired by real life cases of SUNDS (Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome), a rare ailment that strangely appears to only affect young Asian men, in which they die in their sleep for seemingly no reason, linked by (in reported cases anyway) the victim crying out in their sleep just before dying - same as you do when waking from a nightmare. Obviously that alone wouldn't make for a very exciting movie, hence the creation of Freddy Krueger, a boogeyman that invades your nightmares and has the power to kill you for real should he take you out in your assumed harmless dreams. As the series went on the nightmare scenes grew quite outlandish and ridiculous, but the early films succeeded on the strength of their very believable nightmare scenes, where the characters were doing innocuous things like walking around their school hallways or talking to their mother. You'd often be unaware that you were seeing a dream until Freddy showed up (the "Where's the fucking bourbon?!" scene in Dream Warriors comes to mind as a good example), something that was pretty much lost in later entries like Dream Child when he'd kill someone in a comic book sequence.

Because of Freddy's popularity, dreams and nightmares aren't often the main focus of other horror films, as you'd likely be labeled a copycat and/or find it nearly impossible to get out from under his considerable shadow (at its peak, the Freddy films were grossing around 100m in today's dollars, a mark very few horror films manage to reach). There are some notable exceptions, however, such as the intriguing Beyond Dream's Door, an independent production from 1989 where a man who has been unable to dream for several years after a childhood trauma finds himself terrorized by those repressed dreams - the idea being we have to dream in order to get that stuff out of our systems. So instead of a Freddy-like iconic figure, he's being chased by vague concepts (including a wet dream!), which makes the film more identifiable in a way. No one had a nightmare about Freddy until Wes Craven created him, but we've all had dreams about being chased by anonymous monsters, getting into car accidents, etc. Another fun one is Nightmare Detective, a Japanese film about, well, see the title: he's a good guy that can enter dreams and help people solve their real-life mysteries. It's a bit hard to follow (the sequel isn't as good, though it's more coherent), but offers plenty of bizarre dream imagery that is in line with genuine dreams you or I might have.

And that leads me to something I've always found annoying/interesting about the majority of dream sequences in horror movies: they're too normal. As a hefty chunk of them are designed to trick us into thinking we're seeing a very real scene so we're that much more terrified/shocked when our main character is suddenly killed, these scenes often don't feel like legit dreams at all. Most of them involve very basic (again: believable) scenes - the heroine gets out of bed in the middle of the night to get some water or something, shuts the bathroom cabinet mirror and suddenly the movie's killer is behind her. He swings his weapon and BANG! - she bolts upright in bed, as the audience sighs in relief (and perhaps even says aloud: "it was just a dream!"). How often do you have dreams that are like that? I sure as hell almost never do (keyword "almost" - more on that soon), and I've talked to others who agree that movies often fail to properly illustrate the total randomness of dreams. Why can't a movie ever have a scene where the character's parents are helping him make a cake in the middle of the woods when they start arguing about Sesame Street before suddenly shifting to a beach setting where he can't find his wallet (and then the killer jumps out)? Dreams are, for the most part, incoherent goddamn gibberish, and I'd much rather see that represented in movies more often.

Then again, that sort of trickery is infinitely superior to "it was all a dream" endings, which have ruined any number of horror movies (or simply made bad ones worse, like Brainscan). I'm usually OK with "dying dream" types (such as Jacob's Ladder, and don't you dare pull any "spoiler!" shit on me for a 26-year-old movie), but when someone wakes up and realizes that their very complicated (and often not single-POV) story was just a dream, I can't think of a single instance where I didn't dislike the movie as a result. I don't mind a long fake-out if there's a payoff (Zombie's Halloween II, for example, seems to be remaking the 1981, hospital-set entry only for that lengthy sequence to be revealed as a dream, and it's really one year later), but more often than not they say it's all a dream and then seem to suggest it's all going to happen for real. If that's the case - why bother with the twist at all? A recent studio horror film seemed like it was pulling this shit on us, only for the script to subvert our expectations, showing that it did indeed really all happen after all and our characters are now imprisoned in a form of hell for eternity - heh. Other than those inspired exceptions, telling us that the majority of what we watched didn't happen is just the worst kind of copout, and even when they try to suggest it's going to happen anyway it's too late - you've already betrayed the audience and, more than likely, kept them from being scared at the end. 

What's worse about these things is that by trying to present a dream as reality, the filmmakers are unable to dive into the very things that make dreams interesting - the sheer unpredictability of them all. I think the worst sin the Elm Street remake committed (and there were several) is that there was no imagination in the dream scenes, despite having more money (and more technological advances) than any previous entry in the series could allow. You could usually tell when someone was in a dream, but even when Freddy made his appearance the filmmakers opted to keep things fairly grounded, for whatever reason. Every now and then I see a movie that doesn't try to hide it from you - Orphan had a pretty great nightmare sequence at the top, for example - but for the most part it seems like tricking you is the primary goal, and then the person wakes up just when things get potentially interesting on a visual level. This is why the dream within a dream trick can work on me on occasion - In The Mouth of Madness has a pretty good one, and American Werewolf in London does a genius version where the first one is batshit insane (read: obviously a dream), allowing you to easily accept that everything is back to normal when David wakes up, only for him to get attacked yet again (and then wake up for real). Of course, this is exponentially more dangerous for a filmmaker - eyes may already roll at the reveal of one dream, but two at once? You might even get a walkout from that.

A safer bet, usually for sequels, is to offer flashbacks in the form of dreams. Friday the 13th Part 2's endless opening sequence shows us Alice squirming in her sleep, haunted by nightmares of the first movie's final ten minutes - complete with cutaways and other people's perspectives. Again, this is nothing like actual dream behavior - how often do you dream of past events playing out exactly as they really happened? Surely her dreams should have involved out-of-nowhere elements, like her third grade teacher and maybe a missing pair of pants. Sometimes they're used to fill in new story developments, like the same year's Halloween II, which built up its stupid "Laurie's his sister!" reveal by showing Laurie having dreams of asking about her brother as a young girl. This is more or less how they're used in Rue Morgue as well, though Madeleine's dreams also include premonitions of things to come, sometimes blurred together (and with repeated imagery, like a rope falling from the stage's rafters above her). Ultimately it's sort of split both ways in that movie; the dreams are often disjointed enough to resemble one that you or I might have, but also dive headfirst into the cinematic cliche of using them to convey important information. And she has so many that it gets slightly tiresome, especially by the third or fourth time you've seen her wake up in her bed, gasping and sitting up the second she wakes.

That's the other thing - people always overact in the dreams, especially when they wake up. I'm sure there must be a couple out there, but I swear I've never seen anyone in a horror movie wake up from a nightmare without bolting upright and/or letting out a little scream. Usually I just open my eyes, maybe kick my leg a little if appropriate (a falling dream, for example), and spend the next several seconds thinking about it while my brain sorts fact from fiction, until I am convinced it was a dream and it's okay to roll over or get some water or whatever. However, this wouldn't be a very cinematic reaction, so the theatrics of waking up as if you had just been given the adrenaline shot from Pulp Fiction is usually how it's done. Again, I'm sure some folks actually do wake up like this from nightmares, but like the content of those dreams, movies tend to offer the less common version because it's simply more effective to get the audience reaction they desire.

Indeed, of all the nightmares I've ever had, I can only recall waking up from one (ONE!) with an immediate physical reaction accompanying it. In the summer of 2014, my son was still in that life-draining stage where he needed to be fed every 2-3 hours, so to give both my wife and I a halfway decent chunk of unbroken sleep time she would feed him around her normal bedtime (11pm-12am) and then go to bed, while I stayed up in the living room playing video games or watching movies as he slept on his little mat next to the couch (instead of in his crib in the bedroom, where if he woke up it'd just wake her up and defeat the purpose). I'd feed him around 2-3am, get him back to sleep, and then go to bed (and then in turn my wife would let me sleep in while she got up early for the next feeding, around 5 am). Anyway, one night during my shift I happened to doze off watching a horror movie (Oculus, for the record), and I was woken up by my wife brushing against me as she made her way past the couch towards the bedroom, muttering something about how I had fallen asleep. But I didn't get a chance to argue back, because she then let out the most bloodcurdling scream I have ever heard in my life, at which point I immediately looked down at the baby's mat and discovered he was gone - her scream was obviously at the sight of something very unpleasant in the bedroom (i.e. where his crib was). Only then did I really wake up, again immediately springing up to check on my boy, who was of course still sleeping, as was my wife, who had never brushed against me at all. Everything in the dream matched reality - I had fallen asleep watching the movie and had a dream that involved me waking up from that same movie. I have recurring nightmares like everyone else (being in a car without brakes, or being in the backseat with no driver, is my most common), but thank Christ that isn't one of them - even if the specifics never matched reality so closely again, just the sheer simplicity of it all (coupled with my actual worst fear of something happening to my son) made it one I am in no mood to ever experience again. 

But really, that's the sort of thing that makes me fascinated as to why dreams/nightmares are so common in horror - the scariest ones are immensely personal and in turn aren't probably that scary to anyone else. Part of the problem I had with the later Elm Street films is that they were focused on a character's specific fears - i.e. the girl in Dream Child who had an eating disorder, dreaming that she was being fed to death. For anyone in the audience who had an eating disorder of their own, this was probably just as scary as Tina's death in the original when we didn't yet know what was going on, but for everyone else it was probably just another silly scene in an increasingly goofy series. It's a Catch-22 of sorts; the more outlandish and "real dream" like they make their nightmare scenes, the less likely they are to scare their audience, so they have to cheat in order to give the audience the jolts they presumably paid for. But not every scene in a horror movie has to scare you, and that's where I feel filmmakers aren't digging deep enough - there are no set "rules" for dreams, and thus if the point of the scene is to get inside a characters head or convey information, they have literally unlimited options when it comes to how to use them to tell their story.