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Monday, October 29, 2007

Nightmare Movies, Part 1 (originally published 4/97)

Watching a movie may be the conscious mind's nearest equivalent to the dream state. Sitting in the dark with a flood of images washing over your visual field can, if those images have been skillfully crafted, create the same mesmerizing sense of wonder as a particularly intense dream. At the same time, movies are generally more reassuring than dreams. Having seen lots of movies in your life, you can usually guess where a particular plot is going. Failing that, you can at least be confident that the story will resolve itself in some way that makes sense. Dreams, on the other hand, have a disturbing way of spiraling right out of control, leaving all logic and reason behind. Movies, we might say, are like dreams that have been tamed, domesticated, and made presentable for the conscious mind.

Occasionally, however, a particularly audacious filmmaker will cast off the usual restraints to create a film that leaves behind the safe haven of traditional narrative conventions to simulate the dream state in all its messy, disturbing outlandishness. If you've been to see "Dark City," which is currently playing at your local multiplex, you know what I'm talking about. Writer/director Alex Proyas has given us a movie that captures the feel of one of those vivid, creepy dreams that causes you to wake up with a start to find yourself in a cold sweat. In short, his movie is a filmed nightmare. If you'd like to see how earlier filmmakers have handled the idea of recreating the feel of a nightmare, look for these titles on home video.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919). The venerable grandfather of all cinematic nightmare visions is this classic example of German expressionism. Werner Krauss plays the malevolent Caligari, proprietor of a carnival sideshow attraction with decidedly sinister overtones. The inhabitant of his cabinet, Cesare the somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) appears to exist in a perpetual state of trance, under the complete control of Caligari. Is Caligari sending his slave out by night to commit the unsolved string of murders that have plagued the town since the carnival arrived? Both Krauss and Veidt were veterans of the expressionistic stage productions of Max Reinhardt. Under him they had learned an acting style that had little to do with the naturalistic reproduction of human behavior patterns and everything to do with expressing such intangibles as emotions, ideas, and character traits. Even the set design conforms to the radically anti-naturalistic expressionist style. With its stairways leading nowhere, rooms with no right angles, and shadows painted on where no shadows should exist, this prototypical horror tale looks for all the world like the landscape of our nightmares.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943). For years, the grande dame of American avant-garde filmmaking was Maya Deren. Originally a dancer, she brought a lyrical visual imagination to the creation of experimental cinema. In this, her first film, she immerses us in a woman's nightmare, complete with Freudian symbolism. The images are disorienting and disjointed, and yet they have a terrifying internal logic. This is one of those film experiences that leaves you drained and quivering the first time through, then grows on you with every successive viewing. It isn't easy to find, but a home video version does exist on a collection from Mystic Fire Video called "Maya Deren Experimental Films." It's worth searching for.

"The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T." (1953). Young Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) hates being made to practice the piano. He hates it all the more because his piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), is a domineering slave driver. Falling asleep at the piano, the youngster has a nightmare about Dr. Terwilliker as the master of a dungeon where hundreds of children are imprisoned and forced to play the piano (five hundred, to be exact - hence the 5000 fingers). This incredible fantasy picture was co-written by none other than Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. It's hard to imagine the fragile fantasy of Geisel's work surviving the transition to the screen intact, but producer Stanley Kramer and director Roy Rowland achieved the miracle with style and grace.

We've only begun to tap the wealth of nightmare visions conjured up by movie makers over the years. Next week we'll look at a few examples of more recent vintage. Pleasant dreams...

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