Dream sequences can be amazing, as anyone who’s seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound can tell you. They can offer a peek into a character’s mind while treating audiences to dazzling visual effects. But not every director has the genius of Hitchcock, who hired the world’s foremost surrealist, Salvador Dali, to fashion the dream’s look. Most opt for quick and dirty dream scenes, which means audiences are treated to familiar sights when characters fall asleep in front of the camera.
Are there checkerboard patterns on the screen? Do you see a lot of mundane objects with unnatural angles and sharp points? Is everyone lit from below? Brace yourself. You are watching the early 20th century German silent film The Cabinets of Dr. Caligari, a student art film or Pee Wee Herman’s nightmare about a broken bike in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
First-time viewers probably don’t realize the cheerleader movie Bring it On opens with a dream sequence until Kirsten Dunst is suddenly and inexplicably topless in front of her school. Pretty mortifying, but at least she doesn’t have to pitch an inning in cleats and a jock strap, like Tim Robbins in Bull Durham. Public nudity is a common human fear, so it’s odd that noted non-human, Shrek the Ogre, should suffer the same embarrassment in a Shrek 3 dream sequence.
Lavish Musical Productions
It’s odd how many people in movies dream in elaborately choreographed dance sequences featuring overhead camera work and geometric patterns styled after 1920s dance scene auteur Busby Berkeley. You’d almost think that artsy filmmakers are frustrated musical movie lovers. The Coen brothers and Richard Kelly lined up showgirls for dream dance numbers in The Big Lebowski and Southland Tales. Whether anyone’s actually had a dream that looked like that in real life is debatable, but check out those girls.
Oversized Everyday Objects
What could be a more fitting suburban torture than being roasted atop an enormous barbecue grill like Tom Hanks in The Burbs? In the Foo Fighters’ video for “Everlong,” a series of dream scenes reaches a crescendo when Dave Grohl and his band mates need to climb a giant rotary phone. Later, Grohl’s hand grows to an enormous size. The video’s director Michel Gondry liked the big hand effect so much he repeated in his film The Science of Sleep.
Peter Dinklage had an epic rant about the preponderance of dream sequence dwarves in the ’90s movie Living in Oblivion, saying using them as a sign that things are weird was both insensitive to and a hack move on the part of the filmmakers. He’s mostly right, but it’s hard to argue against the creepiness of the red room dwarf from Agent Cooper’s dreams in Twin Peaks.
Gilligan’s supposed to be a dimwitted ship’s first mate but he’s in a court room getting tried for the crimes of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde? Why is Thurston Howell III the judge? The short answer is “it’s a dream.” The long answer is that bored actors are shaking things up with a dream. See also: Clark Griswold dream-singing his way through Julie Andrews’ role in The Sound of Music in European Vacation and embittered shoe salesman Al Bundy dreaming he’s a private detective specializing in cases about shoes on Married with Children.
Cobwebs and Smoke
When faced with budget constraints, film and video makers resort to classic haunted house set dressing. Renting a smoke machine and hanging cobwebs on the set are classic, cost-effective ways of letting audiences know that a scene is meant to be spooky or surreal. Check out the mountain of cobwebs that descends on Robert Smith’s bedroom once he falls asleep in the video for The Cure’s “Lullaby.”
Scary Old People
Evidently, Ingmar Bergman and Metallica share a fear of old people. The dream sequences in the video for “Enter Sandman” and the movie Wild Strawberries begin their nightmare journeys with visions of scary seniors. And while evil-minded elderly people accost Mia Farrow throughout Rosemary’s Baby, the dream sequence ups the stakes, having them appear naked in their wrinkled glory.
After Jimmy Stewart drifts off to sleep in Vertigo, a cartoon flower bouquet explodes into a burst of swirling shapes. It’s a quick and effective way to tell audiences they’re watching the dreaming mind of a troubled man. A longer animated dream sequence in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle conveys a different meaning: dude is horny.
Crowds Reaching Out
Inception’s mind-bending uses of computer graphics pushed the boundaries of what modern cinematic spectacle. But one of the key ideas, people in dreams attacking a foreign element “like white blood cells” harkens back to dream scenes from famously budget-restricted filmmakers like Ed Wood and Roger Corman, where dead-eyed crowds swarm the person at the center of the dream.
Sexy Stuff & Getting the Girl
Television nerds like Frasier’s Niles Crane and the Big Bang Theory’s Raj don’t often get to cavort with bikini babes or make out with female characters. When they’re awake, at least. In dreams, they're seduction pros. Characters who were already studs, like Full House’s Uncle Jesse, the nightmare is being unable to land the dream girl.
Lucifer loves to make cameos in dream sequences. With Glen or Glenda, the devil probably symbolizes the main character’s gender-bent guilt. In Insidious, the demonic presence reveals its intentions to drag a child to hell in a dream. In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the devil takes his most horrifying form: Pee Wee’s arch nemesis, Francis Buxton.