10 great films about dreaming

On the eve of World Sleep Day, we drift off into some of the cinema’s most hypnotic films about dreams.

18 March 2021

By Chloe Walker

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Dreaming can transport us to wondrous new places, throw us into perilous and exciting adventures, and make us re-evaluate our waking lives from an entirely different perspective. That’s exactly what the best films – the ones that stay with us long after watching and bury themselves in our subconscious – do too. It’s no wonder that cinema has been preoccupied with dreams since its earliest days; after all, George Méliès made The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) years before he ever took that legendary trip to the moon.

In film, dreams can serve a wide variety of functions. They can be extravagant and fantastical – a chance to explore lands far beyond the reach of the characters’ waking minds (all the while showing off some impressive special effects). Or they can be searching and reflective – an opportunity to process hopes, worries and regrets, and tell us what’s going on deep down inside our hero’s psyche. The most frequent cinematic dreams are, of course, nightmares: the fearsome fuel of the whole horror genre. Films are rarely scarier than when a character gets trapped in the liminal space between dreams and wakefulness, unsure whether or not what’s happening to them is real. 

With boundless imagination and spectacular technical wizardry, when it comes to bringing our wildest dreams to life, there is no better medium than cinema. Here are 10 examples of the differing ways that films have used dreams to whisk us away.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

When she is hit on the head by a piece of debris after a tornado strikes her small Kansas town, Dorothy (Judy Garland) finds herself lost in the wonderful world of Oz, where – along with three unlikely allies – she heads off to locate the titular wizard, hoping he’ll show her how to get home. 

The Wizard of Oz presents us with one of cinema’s most enduring dreamworlds, which has captured the hearts and minds of multiple generations in the decades since the film’s release. The real world is a dingy sepia; Oz is painted in eyeball-scorchingly bright Technicolor, which was still a fairly young technology in 1939. Despite the vivid colours and the cheery songs, Oz is often very much a land of nightmares. From the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) to those frightening flying monkeys, it’s no wonder Dorothy was so desperate to get back to Kansas.

Dead of Night (1945)

Directors: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer

Dead of Night (1945)

Beating Inception to its ‘dream within a dream’ premise by 65 years, Dead of Night follows Walter (Mervyn Johns), an architect who is called to a house in the country to discuss renovations. When he gets there, he realises he’s visited before in a dream – and it was not a pleasant one. The other houseguests are amused at his story, and each tell him tales of their own dreams and encounters with the supernatural. 

The houseguests’ amusement at the idea they are figments of Walter’s imagination gives the film a meta dimension – after all, there’s not much difference between characters in a dream and characters in a movie. Although this Ealing production does not reveal whether or not what we’re seeing is all a product of Walter’s subconscious until the very end, the fact that his predictions about what will happen next are consistently proven correct gives us a big clue. Even so, the final revelation is truly the stuff of nightmares. Speaking of which…

Nightmare (1956)

Director: Maxwell Shane

Nightmare (1956)

The first thing we see is Stan (Kevin McCarthy) stabbing a man to death in a mysterious mirrored room. Then Stan wakes up in his bed, sweaty, scared and convinced that what he experienced was real. Friend and brother-in-law Rene (Edward G. Robinson) – who also happens to be a detective – is sceptical but aids him in his quest to discover what really happened.

From the moment Stan first ‘wakes up’, every decision he makes pulls him back towards the mirrored room, even though, if he’s right about what occurred, he will be implicated in a murder and Rene will have no choice but to arrest him. The eerie manner in which the world appears to be summoning him there feels just like the way our dreams propel us forward, regardless of our attempts to exert agency. While the conclusion to the mystery is disappointingly pedestrian, Stan’s return to the mirrored room is full of atmospheric, nightmarish portent.

8½ (1963)

Director: Federico Fellini

8½ (1963)

Guido (Marcello Mastroianni, playing Federico Fellini’s cipher) is a film director struggling to come up with ideas for his latest production. Desperate for inspiration, he looks inward, hoping that his dreams and memories will give him some clue as to what to do next. 

8½ gave us two of cinema’s most iconic dream sequences: the opening, where Guido dreams he is escaping a stifling traffic jam and flying high over Italy, and Guido’s harem fantasy, in which he imagines all of the many women in his life living in harmony, ready to attend to his every desire (although amusingly, despite it being his fantasy, the women still conspire and threaten to overthrow him). In the most personal of all of Fellini’s films, even reality seems like a dream. The characters are exaggerated, the sets are cavernous, the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography gives everything a surreal edge. The Italian tradition of post-synching dialogue, which means the actors’ mouth movements rarely match what they’re saying, only adds to the effect.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!” It’s in their dreams, after all, that Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are menaced by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), the notorious child murderer who was killed by their parents years earlier and has returned to wreak revenge on their children. With bravery, wits and buckets of coffee, Nancy must devise a plan to defeat him once and for all.
In our beds, in our rooms, in our houses with their locked doors, we are meant to be protected. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street derives its terror from a killer that strikes in a place synonymous with safety and comfort, finding his victims in a position of frightening vulnerability. Craven has fun with gloopy physical effects that evoke the endless potential of our subconscious to conjure up ghoulish imagery, but nothing in this film is scarier than the prospect of a killer who strikes when we’re at our most defenceless.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Director: David Lynch

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Other than Fellini, it’s difficult to think of a director whose work has been as consistently concerned with dreams as David Lynch. As with much of his filmography, Mulholland Dr.’s plot is not easy to explain (or to understand, for that matter), but it roughly divides into two parts – the dream, then the reality. First we see the highly saturated fantasy version of what happened to two young actresses (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) upon their arrival in Hollywood. Then we see the horrifying truth. 
But this is a David Lynch movie, so it isn’t as simple as that. Dreams and nightmares and reality are all one big, unwieldy package. Perhaps the whole thing takes place on another plane of existence altogether. Nevertheless, Mulholland Dr. – like the rest of Lynch’s work – is unsettlingly successful at recreating the queasy feeling of being trapped inside a fantasy that has morphed into a nightmare.

Waking Life (2001)

Director: Richard Linklater

Waking Life (2001)

An unnamed man (Wiley Wiggins) ambles his way through an unnamed city in his dreams, having conversations with an eclectic array of individuals about life, the universe and everything. As he burrows deeper into this mysterious place, experiencing a series of ‘false awakenings’ that still leave him dreaming, he starts to worry that he won’t ever be able to wake up for real.

Waking Life was rotoscoped (it was shot on film, and then a team of artists illustrated over it), and the result is suitably oneiric. There’s constant movement in the architecture of the city – buildings and streets seem to levitate – and the characters’ eyes and noses shift, Picasso-like, around their faces. Rotoscoping allows director Richard Linklater complete free rein with his imagination, letting our hero fly over the city, and changing people into clouds mid-conversation. It’s the perfect technology for creating a film so deeply preoccupied with the nature and substance of dreams.

Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Inception (2010)

The notoriously complex plot follows a corporate espionage group, led by Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio), who are experts at stealing valuable information from people’s subconscious. When a businessman (Ken Watanabe) hires them to plant information inside a dream, an already tricky job becomes even more complicated.

The intense climactic sequences of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster opus take place on multiple levels: the action happens both in reality and in three connecting layers of dreams. Nolan’s grasp on the labyrinthine machinations of his plot are impressive, but even more so is the technical mastery involved in the construction of the various planes of consciousness: Inception shows us what happens when a director has the means to create the world of… well, his dreams. The sweep and the scale of them – zero-gravity hotels, cities collapsing in seconds, whole worlds folding in on themselves while our characters are still inside – boggles the mind.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013)

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013)

Film student Haewon (Jung Eun-chae) is at a junction in her young life: her mother is moving to Canada, she’s having increasingly difficult relationships with both current and former boyfriends, and she has no idea what her future holds. In conversations with those around her – both real and dreamt – she tries to find solace and guidance.

Though their styles are wildly different, Hong Sang-soo’s use of dreams in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is similar to Fellini’s in 8½: both directors use them to explore the subconsciouses of their flailing protagonists. Haewon’s dreams are so simple and low-key, it’s hard to differentiate them from her daily routine – in fact, it’s often only when we see her waking up that we realise she’s been asleep. Hong collapses the space between dreams and reality in a manner that makes it almost inconsequential whether what we’ve seen has actually happened. In his patient character studies, both are equally important.  

On Body and Soul (2017)

Director: Ildikó Enyedi

On Body and Soul (2017)

Mária (Alexandra Borbély) and Endre (Géza Morcsányi) work at an abattoir. He’s the boss; she’s in quality control. Both solitary sorts, they don’t have a lot to do with each other until they realise that they’ve been sharing the same recurring dream. Intrigued, the two are drawn together and a tentative romance begins. 

Usually dreaming is a solo activity, but Ildikó Enyedi’s film imagines it as something both spiritual and romantic, a way of connecting two lonely souls in an ethereal nocturnal realm. While the dream they share is completely undramatic – Mária and Endre are a doe and a stag searching for food in a snowy forest – the impact it has on their waking lives is monumental. On Body and Soul doesn’t explore the mechanics of how the universe has conspired to bring the two together, preferring to leave it all an ethereal mystery. A beautiful dream. 

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