[Editor's Note: With Tremor Dose debuting on Wednesday October 30, Michael Conrad has written up a list of his favorite dream sequences in film as it related to the comiXology Originals OGN.]
Dreams are a time honored element of storytelling. Huge elements of the Bible are based on dreams, as are Shakespearian plays, Harold and Kumar, you name it, all the classics. While writing Tremor Dose, my nightmare-fueled graphic novel for comiXology Originals, I knew that I had to bring my "A" game to make sure that I provided artist Noah Bailey with a script that captures the essence of what makes the dream device so much fun. Our book is full of literary references, but to get my visual juices flowing I turned to film. Here’s a list of 5 fantastic dream sequences that continue to keep me up at night.
American Werewolf In London (John Landis, 1981)
As an American in 2019 I never thought that Nazi’s would be a real concern for me, and yet here I am super concerned about Nazis!
In the space of about a minute our senses become overwhelmed. We find ourselves in a typical domestic scene of the era, a family enjoys quality time watching the Muppet Show when suddenly there’s a knock at the door. Upon answering it, dad is met with a hail of gunfire at the hands of mutant nazis!
The mutants storm the living room and light it ablaze while our protagonist is held at knifepoint to witness the slaughter, the dream ending with his throat being slit. These visuals come out of nowhere and as a youngster watching the film it felt jarring, out of place, and over the top. Even in subsequent viewings I remain surprised at the inclusion of the scene, as the other dream sequences seem much more appropriate for someone infected with lycanthropy.
What works about this dream is its left field quality and the reminder that dreams are often illogical, pulled from the ether for mysterious reasons. We don’t need a context for this, it’s understood that David (David Naughton) has been gravely wounded and part of this injury includes bizarre dreams that may be connected to an erosion of his sanity. The dream is bizarre. I love the amount of work that must have gone into such a short piece of celluloid.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
I can’t think of a David Lynch film that doesn’t lean heavily on dreams to tell its story, for that reason it was hard for me to narrow it down to just one for the sake of this list. But in Mulholland Drive, Lynch hit a whole new level when he crafted a scene about the anxiety of dreams rather than taking us directly in. The scene in question here (and arguably the most influential scene on Tremor Dose) is the nightmare described in Winkie's Diner.
A mere 11 minutes in and we are witness to a masterstroke. Lynch treats us to some very subtle bobbing of a steady cam switching alternately between the troubled Dan (Patrick Fischler) and his stoic partner Herb (Michael Cooke). Dan recounts a dream he has been having that seems to have foretold the very moment he is living in. Part of what makes this scene work is due to Fischler so convincingly delivering his dialogue, the bigger part though belongs to that familiar creepiness that happens when we struggle to discern reality from our own imagined fears. This is what makes dreams scary, this is our anxieties surrounding our ability to identify the truth.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Vertigo is likely the second biggest influence on Tremor Dose. In a brief third act dream sequence Scottie (James Stewart) is cast into an amalgam of animation and technicolor strobe effects that come out of nowhere in this otherwise grounded film. One moment we are putting together the pieces of this classic mystery, the next we’re going off the rails on a crazy train courtesy of one of the greatest cinematographers of all time (Robert Burk) as directed by the big boss of cinema himself.
In Vertigo, the dream sequence has a utility in that it shows Scottie undoing the gordian knot of his situation and coming to realizations that will allow the story to resolve in a way that will ensure that Vertigo will be in the top 5 of every critic and viewers “Best Movies Ever” list. In this case it gets the nod for this short sequence sticking with me in a way that I question if it ever existed at all. It feels as if I imagined the entire thing, as it carves out its own unique space in my mind. While critical to the movie, it feels too bonkers to have existed at all, like so many dreams.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
I’ve seen a number of folks arguing that most of The Shining is actually dreams. This scene is less about that theory and instead, once again, about how we report our dreams which is a big part of Tremor Dose. The scene begins with Jack (Jack Nicholson) asleep at his typewriter bellowing in fear. His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) enters the room and wakes him, Jack then weepingly describes his nightmare in which he has killed her and their young son. I have had dreams in which I have committed much lesser offenses that I was hesitant to share with loved ones, but old Jack sees fit to carry on about how he not only killed his family but he cut them up into little pieces.
One of the most unsettling things about a nightmare is that moment when you wake up and for a time believe that these things are real. I’ve had recurring dreams about harming someone on an emotional level and spent the morning beset with guilt as a result. When Jack’s kid (Danny Lloyd) enters the scene clearly shaken and unresponsive, wearing a fresh bruise on his neck, Nicholson stares on wide eyed with the visceral realization that his dream may have been more than some nocturnal illusion. This crossing over opens up so many questions for the viewer and presents us with an inability to trust Jack, or even what we are being presented scene to scene.
The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
I love David Cronenberg. Like Lynch it was hard to pick a dream sequence for this list from the variety offered in his films. The maggot birth nightmare in The Fly however is utterly unforgettable and repulsive.
Cronenberg cast himself to play the doctor and knocks it out of the park. When he pulls a giant maggot from the birth canal of Ronnie (Geena Davis) he looks about surprised as I was at 8 years of age when I was first exposed to such terrors!
This sequence puts on full display one of the core ideas I have about nightmares being a manifestation of real world fears that must be faced at some point. One of the common theories about nightmares is that they are an effort of our psyche to rationalize unaddressed concerns. In Ronnie’s case, she has slept with a scientist who is becoming an insect. In the case of Ginn from Tremor Dose… well, I’ll let you give it a look yourself and you can tell me what fears are being expressed in this graphic novel that is more dream sequences than it is reality.
Or is it reality?
Or is it a dream?