Have you just discovered that you’re not wearing any trousers? Is your cheese sandwich talking to you? Have you forgotten how to blink? Then you’re probably dreaming.
And it’s that kind of experience we’re reliving here, with 30 of sci-fi and fantasy’s greatest dream sequences. According to us. Because we’re experts – we like sleeping on the job.
As usual we’ve been pretty strict with the rules. Waking or drug-fuelled hallucinations are out – sorry Fringe . Alternate realities created by sentient beings are out – sorry, It’s A Wonderful Life . And it’s not supposed to be exhaustive; we know Supernatural has done dreams. These are just either our favourites or the ones we think are noteworthy for doing something a little different.
( This is, by the way, an updated and extended version of a feature from the SFX archives of 2010. )
Okay, we kick off with a bit of a cheat – since Medium is a series about a psychic’s dreams, we could have filled the entire list with examples from numerous episodes, because it so often comes up with brilliantly bizarre imagery. Favourites include the cartoon killer chimps and the faux black and white silent movie. But if we had to pick one, then let’s go for Allison’s dream about how we never die in dreams (from “Bite Me”) with its bewildering array of archive footage and a very odd final twist when Allison wakes up as Vampira for no obvious reason.
Romero’s third … Of The Dead zombie epic opens with a bizarrely mannered, but elegant nightmare sequence. A woman sits in a bunker. There are no windows. No door. Just bare, white walls. The only thing in the room is a calendar. Eerily, all the days in October are crossed off, but nobody’s turned to November. She stands up and crosses the room to the calendar, peering wistfully at its image of a pumpkin patch. She clearly longs for the outside world. As she reaches out to touch the picture… dozens of zombie arms burst through the wall and she spins around in an almost overly theatrical attempt to escape.
Then Sarah wakes up in a helicopter that’s patrolling the zombie-infested town below.
It’s a perfect mood-setter for a very claustrophobic horror film (even if the still above ruins the effect slightly by clearly revealing how the effect was achieved – believe us, when you’re watching the film, you’re too shocked to notice).
The third Doctor was a habitual dreamer, but it wasn't until the Eleventh Doctor arrived that Doctor Who really tackled the subject of dreams full on. Even then, the Time Lord’s tussle with the Dream Lord (his alter ego) was, for the most part, a rather undream-like affair, featuring two interconnected stories that weren't too far from his normal adventures. Killer OAPs with serpents in their mouths may be bizarre for most of us, but for the Doctor, well, that’s just business as usual. The episode does deserve its place here though, for a couple of wonderful dream-logic moments, including the quite beautiful image of an ice star, and the freaky birdsong that signalled the leaps from one dream to another.
Okay. Now this is just unashamed slash bait. In the season three opener Sam – who’s never shown any tendencies for batting on the other side in the past – suddenly has a homoerotic dream about vampire Bill. Thankfully for him, if not for internet fantasists, the phone wakes him up before they get to first base… We assume it’s all the fallout of Sam being saved by Bill’s blood in the second season finale, but maybe he’s simply in denial about enjoying Brokeback Mountain so much.
How to pad out a Thunderbirds movie that appears to have less of a plot than the usual hour-long episodes did? Create a dream sequence, of course! Alan, pissed off that his brothers have gone to The Swinging Star night club while he remains on call back on base, has a dream in which Lady Penelope whisks him off in FAB 1 to a nightclub in the stars. There they watch a puppet Cliff Richard Jr perform a jaunty little number with The Shadows (oddly not The Shadows Jnr… but then, this is a dream, so who’s to say they couldn’t all have been pickled and preserved?). Way too long a sequence, really, but endearingly daft.
Lord knows what level of dream within a dream this is in Vanilla Sky . It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. But let’s just take it on face value, and you’ve got one hell of a simple, but powerfully emotive dream image: Tom Cruise driving into a completely deserted Time Square – this never happens. He then leaves his car behind, runs down the echoey streets and finally does an impression of Hiro from the pilot of Heroes . Quite why he’s so upset is unclear. He should just appreciate how easy the parking will be…
Well, if you were the only human survivor of a ship that had been attacked by killer alien with acid blood and a penchant for incubating its babies in your stomach, you’d have nightmares, wouldn’t you? Her psychiatrist would probably mumble something about pregnancy anxiety… but the last thing you need after being chased by a giant penis-headed alien is some Freudian analyst blaming it all on your mother.
The entire series seemed to exist in some bizarre dream-like state, but “A, B And C” saw Number Two trying to extract Number Six’s secrets by actually manipulating his dreams. By the third night of Number Two’s scheme, Number Six has cottoned on and takes control – lucid dreaming we would call it now – and turns the tables on Number Two. The best moment – which tells us that Number Six is now firmly back in the driving seat – occurs at the start of the third dream. Initially the dream world is almost literally spinning, but then Number Six grabs a crookedly-hung rococo mirror and straightens it. The world rights itself and Number Six has that devious, self-satisfied little smile again. Come in Number Two, your time is up.
And the one-line pitch is: what if Data had nightmares? The answer, apparently, is that he would dream about Riker sucking Dr Crusher’s brains out with a straw, and turning Troi into a giant birthday cake and slicing her up. Meanwhile, the audience’s nightmare is that we’ll get another Data episode where he tries to tell jokes.
An entire half of Awake ’s all-too-short 13-episode running time was a dream sequence. The question was, which half? This clever show from 2012 had a deceptively simple premise. Following a car accident, cop Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) discovers that he’s leading two lives. In one his wife died in the accident but his son survived; in the other, his son died but his wife survived. Now when he falls asleep in one world, he wakes up in the other, and so on, back and forth. We know one of the realities was a dream because the show makers said so – unequivocally. But it was never revealed which one. We thought we’d cracked it when in one reality, Michael start talking to a penguin – that had to be the dream, right? But nothing was ever that simple in this show, where penguins could easily be red herrings. Or vice versa.
Even though it may not have boasted the weirdest dream sequences (though the final episode had it moments), Awake fully deserves a place in this feature because it carefully managed to pull off a sustained dream sequence for 13 episodes… and left us wanting more. We miss it.
So, a cyborg from the future tells you that civilisation is going to end in nuclear apocalypse. That’s bound to play on your mind. No wonder Sarah Connor is having nightmares like this. Seriously, though, while her dream isn’t strictly necessary to the plot, it harrowingly brings a rather abstract concept about a possible apocalypse to shocking life. Immediately the threat feels all the more real and tangible. Cameron gives us a brutal and shocking vision of people bursting into flame, skin dripping from bone, and then bodies turning to ash, The film may be a bubble-gum action flick, but rarely have the effects of nuclear wipeout been more effectively visualised.
The first “double wake-up” call in this list, as Picard recalls his time as Locutus of Borg and (apparently) wakes up just before the cyborg drones stick a drill in his eyeball. Sweating at the memory, Picard goes to his bathroom to splash some water on his face… and a Borg device erupts through his cheek (a psychotherapist might assume he maybe had really bad acne as a teenager). This time he wakes up for real. It’s an old trick, but pulled off with clinical precision here.
On the one hand, Jacob’s Ladder is the kind of story you’d get a D minus for if you handed it in as an essay, because it’s that old “it was all a dream” chestnut (or as near as dammit) that your teacher tells you to avoid. On the other hand, it’s a terrifyingly freaky film that seems to capture the very essence of nightmares. Never more so than in this scene where war vet Jacob (Tim Robbins) is dragged on a hospital gurney through Bedlam – a hellish asylum of screaming inmates; corridor awash in blood and guts; maimed humans scurrying about like depraved beast; eyeless surgeons; and men doing that crazy, shaky head thing that became the film’s signature image. Truly one of cinema’s most unsettling sequences ever.
Somebody’s planted a sneaky little demon on Angel which is giving him some downright weird dreams. His mate Wes tries to stake him. Spike saves the world and is rewarded by the Blue Fairy, who makes him a real boy again, with a genuine beating heart. But the most bizarre moment of all sees Fred open him up with a scalpel to see what she’ll find inside. This includes a shrivelled up walnut (his heart), some pearls and a goldfish in a bowl (which, of course, she gives to a passing bear). That Angel seriously needs some therapy.
( NB We had a bit of a debate about whether the episode “Awakening” counted. It’s a great episode, sure, but in the end, it felt more like an alternate reality episode than a dream episode. )
“This isn’t a dream, this is really happening!” protests Rosemary (Mia Farrow) as the devil rapes her, while a bunch of naked old people watch (we’re sure there are cable channels for this kind of thing these days). Is it a dream? Or is it really happening? And is Rosemary imagining the whole conspiracy against her? The film carefully maintains a sense of ambiguity, almost right to the end. We see everything from Rosemary’s point of view, and can’t be certain how reliable that is, but there's no denying the cloying sense of terror this sequence generates.
Now here’s a weird one. Because it is a dream, but a dream that merges with reality, experimenting with the grammar of filmmaking in a way only early visionary directors like Fritz Lang could. In the midst of his silent SF epic, there is a scene in which evil genius Rotwang puts on a stage show for an audience of lasciviously leering men. An erotic, delirious Dance Of The Seven Veils, it stars his creation, the robotic Maria, cavorting in a way that seems unseemly for such an ancient piece for cinema. Meanwhile, the film’s hero, Fredersen is delirious in his bed, dreaming about statues of the seven deadly sins coming to life in a crypt. The two strands cross and intermingle in a near suffocating flurry of images as Lang takes the techniques of montage cinema and expressionism to new levels.
Another film that is, technically, mostly a dream, The Company Of Wolves has a very narrow target audience: feminists who like visceral horror (all men are wolves you see – it’s a METAPHOR!). But while Little Red Riding Hood with a Germaine Greer makeover may have been a nightmare for the marketing team, Wolves is also such a brilliantly-made and drippingly-atmospheric film, it found many fans among any lover of quirky, idiosyncratic, dark fantasy films, irregardless of bra-burning tendencies.
While most of the film is the fever dream of teenage girl on the verge of womanhood (subconsciously pissed off that she’s lost her elder sister to an – urgh – boyfriend), a lot of the imagery is more fairy tale than dream-like. However, the opening dream sequence is pure dream logic, with toys from the younger girl’s room coming to life to terrorise the elder sister (whose wedding dress hangs limply in the background). Mix in a freaky owl, some scary church organ pipes and a pack of glowing-eyed wolves for a full-on nightmare experience. My, grandma, what big ideas you have.
In a series of films with more dream (or should that be nightmare?) sequences than cheesy one-liners, it’s difficult to pick one which stands above all others. But we’ve settled for the first lamb to be slaughtered in Wes Craven’s original and best Freddy flick. Tina is the unfortunate soul who takes solace in her slumber only to be stalked by a crazy armed, razorblade-fingered, face-peeling monster who proceeds to split open her torso (in the real world) and throw her round the room with no respect for the laws of gravity. The bedroom sequence still looks mint today, unnerving and uncanny with a genuinely unsettling effect that the remake’s mess of wirework and embarrassing sound design completely failed to capture.
Short and sweet this one. Sweet, because it was never in the original cut of the movie, and its inclusion in subsequent versions has proven a fan-delighting Rosetta Stone, unlocking the secret of the film – that replicant hunter Rick Deckard is a replicant himself. Well, that’s one interpretation anyway. Either that or Deckard had just fallen asleep while watching Legend on a cable movie channel.
Ashes ’s recreation of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” video (complete with Alex looking more ’80s than at any other time in the series) is also memorable for having Gene Hunt look like a big fairy nonce as he skips across the screen, singing into his spanner. Brilliantly silly, even if we find it hard to believe that Billy Joel would ever be in Alex’s musical frame of reference. Still, at least she didn’t dream the “Thriller” video. Gene as a moonwalking zombie would have been too much to handle.
“Restless” was a brave, experimental episode of Buffy . Normally the season finale is all bangs and whistles, but Joss Whedon had got all that business out of the way in the previous episode. Instead, “Restless” is almost like a coda to season four, or epilogue to the season, with the main characters’ dreams haunted by the first Slayer.
The episode is a series of different characters’ dreams, each of them packed with bizarre and amusing images, and the kind of anxieties and wish fulfilments that pop up involuntarily when we get some shut eye: Willow has to go on stage with no rehearsal and read an essay in front of a jeering class; Xander has to contend with advances from Buffy’s mum and gets to witness Willow and Tara making out. Meanwhile, Buffy plays in a sandpit, Spike poses for photographers, Giles plays on the swings, Principal Snyder comes over all Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and a man obsessed with cheese slices pops up all over the place (a warning against eating cheese before bedtime, maybe?). Never has TV embraced dream logic so lovingly.
A public services broadcast on the dangers of having sex with a crazy, half-fly scientist without a condom. Gina Davies gives birth to a maggot even a mother couldn’t love. Director David Cronenberg plays the surgeon who delivers the grub; if this were an M Night Shyamalan film this would be SIGNIFICANT – a metaphor for the “horror director as midwife to the birth of chaos” or something. But it’s not. It’s Cronenberg. He probably just thought it would be cool. Or he couldn’t afford another actor.
Ah Farscape . The Olympic gold medal winner for sci-fi weird shit and bat’s-arsery. Of course when Farscape did a dream episode it went one step further than most. One step? Hell several hundred steps. With Crichton in a coma, and still trying to deal with “Harvey” (as he called the little piece of villain Scorpius’s psyche that was sharing his mind at the time), the show decided that Crichton wouldn’t just dream… he would dream in Looney Tunes. Yep, animated Farscape , complete with Scorpius and D’Argo involved in a series of Wyle E Coyote and Road-Runner-style chases. Then there was the moment when the Aeryn ’toon morphed into Jessica Rabbit, Marilyn Monroe, Nancy Reagan and Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz (among others). If you haven’t seen it, it may sound a bit gratuitous, but you have to believe us – it all makes sense in context: it’s far, far more than just a gimmick; it links in perfectly with the ongoing plot arcs; and it’s utter, utter genius.
Bizarrely, the American distributors tried to cut the wake-up scene from the end of Terry Gilliam’s bizarre Nineteen Eighty-Four -eque fantasy to give the film a happy ending. Bizarre not just because it ruined the whole tone and point of the movie (it would have been like having Winston Smith overthrow Big Brother) but because the final few minutes of the film are quite clearly a dream. The whole grotesque, insane sequence is a torrent of dream logic, as hapless hero Sam Lowry escapes from the evil Ministry by falling through coffins and opening doors in brick walls that lead to the back of moving lorries. There is only one adjective that can adequately describes what’s assaulting your eyes – Gilliamesque. It ends with Sam escaping to the country with his gal, of course (at which point the American suits shouted CUT!) only to be revealed as one big hallucination. Sam is still captive in the ministry, apparently delirious and a lost cause.
Director Michel Gondry and dreams were a celluloid marriage made in cloud cuckoo land, somewhere over the rainbow. The Science Of Sleep takes dream imagery into frantic new realms as moonstruck Mexican Stéphane lets his fantasy life seep into his mundane real life as a typesetter. The whole film is packed with the most extraordinary imagery but it’s the first headtrip sequence that really sticks in the memory: Stéphane grows outsized hands then flies across a cartoon landscape; a sentient electric razor attacks his boss, who grows a beard and becomes a supermarket trolley-pushing crusty; all of it accompanied by music that sound like every ride in the fairground having an argument in a aircraft hangar. What could top that? The hero and heroine riding off into the sunset on a toy horse at the end of the movie, of course.
“This is a box. A magical box. Playing a magical tune. But inside this box, there lies a surprise. Do you know who’s in it today? It’s Sam Tyler. Hello Sam. How are you today? Oh dear. Not very happy. Is it Gene Hunt? Is he kicking in a nonce?” Simply superb. A perfectly executed parody of Camberwick Green . The only version of Camberwick Green , though, that would need to be shown after the watershed.
Twin Peaks was already shaping up to be the most surreal show in TV history before this dream sequence early in the show’s first season – one which dropped viewers' jaws so forcefully that the Earth trembled on its axis as they hit the ground. The dream sees FBI Agent Cooper sitting in a mysterious Red Room with a doppelganger of the murdered Laura Palmer (“I feel like I know her,” she says helpfully, “but sometimes my arms bend back”) and a dwarf… who not only speaks backwards but dances, too. It’s a truly bizarre piece of television. For that we thank you, David Lynch.
The last thing you need when you’re watching The Muppets is for a crack squad of gun-toting zombie Nazis to knock at the door, shoot all your family, cut your throat and then burn the house down. Luckily it was all a dream, and budding young werewolf David Naughton wakes up back in hospital with that woman he fancied in Walkabout next to his bed. That calms him down, until she goes to open the window and is hacked down by another zombie Nazi. Arrgghhhhh, it’s another one of those double dreams! They really can make you paranoid about nodding off. One question, though – why zombie Nazis? The only answer to that, clearly, is why not?
Hugely entertaining though it is, for a film that’s all about people rummaging around in other people’s dreams, Inception has some very mundane-looking dreams a lot of the time. Then again, the whole concept was crazy and complex enough as it was, so introducing wall-to-wall dream logic might have made the whole thing unwatchable. Instead the film opted for a few grandstanding moments to make its point, and they didn’t stand much grander than the moment when a city began to fold in on itself. Possibly the best argument for CGI since Spielberg’s dinosaurs.
Short. Simple. Shocking. Even when you’ve seen it a million times. In fact, the sheer anticipation of knowing it’s going to happen somehow makes the scare just as effective. Brian de Palma’s masterly adaptation of Stephen King’s book about the pubescent girl with telepathic powers and anger management problems ends with this chilling dream that leaves you in no doubt that though Carrie still has issues, and not the kind any sessions in a couch are likely to solve any time soon.
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