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Monday, October 29, 2007

Nightmare Movies, Part 2 (originally published 4/97)

Last week we gathered our courage and ventured into the world of nightmare movies. These are films, like the recently released "Dark City," in which the filmmakers largely jettison the rules of conventional plot development, opting instead for the disturbing irrationality of our darker dreams. When done well, this unorthodox approach to cinematic storytelling can produce fascinating and challenging screen entertainment. Here are a few more examples of movies available on video that evoke the mood of a nightmare.

"The Trial" (1962). Although Franz Kafka's novel was written back in 1925, it presents a situation that seems even more relevant to our own conspiracy-conscious time. Joseph K. is a low level clerk who is accosted one day in his own home by men who place him under arrest. Despite his protests they are unrelenting, refusing even to tell him what his crime is. The situation deteriorates from there, with the hapless K. eventually finding himself before a vast roomful of accusing faces, vainly attempting to defend himself against a charge of which he is still totally ignorant. The recreation of Kafka's nightmare world would be a daunting task for any filmmaker. Fortunately, it was the dauntless and peerless Orson Welles who took on the challenge. The result was one of Welles's most impressive cinematic achievements, easily ranking with such classic Welles films as "Citizen Kane" and "Touch of Evil."

"Neighbors" (1981). This demented and ultimately disturbing comedy belongs to a class of films that begin in an atmosphere of normality, then gradually slide into the bizarre. Somewhere around the middle of the picture we realize that we are caught in a nightmare, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly where we left the real world behind. John Belushi and Kathryn Walker play a suburban couple whose mundane existence is enlivened by the arrival of their quirky new neighbors, played by Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty. Larry Gelbart's wild and crazy script should have been an ideal vehicle for Belushi and Aykroyd, but director John Avildsen seems uncomfortable with the eccentricity of the material. Even so, this comic nightmare is well worth seeing.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984). Amid the plethora of sequels that have eroded the impact of the premise through endless repetition, it is easy to forget that Wes Craven's original tale of the nightmarish Freddy Krueger was one of the most imaginative horror films of its time. It is an inspired premise: a bogeyman who literally inhabits your dreams. If you've only seen the sequels, you owe it to yourself to discover the original.

"After Hours" (1985). Director Martin Scorsese is never more in his element than when telling stories about New York City. Here he shows us the bizarre side of New York nightlife as we follow Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) through a wild night in SoHo. Having lost all his pocket money, he is unable to afford transportation back to his apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Temporarily trapped in the unfamiliar environs south of Houston Street, Paul encounters a host of eccentric characters, each more way-out than the last.

"Brazil" (1985). Once upon a time director Terry Gilliam was best known, to the extent that he was known at all, as the guy who did those outlandish animated segments for "Monty Python's Flying Circus." Since then he has proved to be one of this generation's most gifted fantasy filmmakers. The promise he showed in "Time Bandits" (1981) came into full flower with "Brazil," a dark comedy that follows the misadventures of a petty bureaucrat through a nightmare vision of the future. The script, written by Gilliam along with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, evokes the mood of a Kafka story by painting a portrait of a claustrophobic, paranoid society in which no individual can hope to avoid being swallowed up by an oppressive bureaucracy. Visually, Gilliam's eclectic style reflects a multitude of influences ranging from the inspired silliness of his Monty Python days to the stunning pictorial style of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

I began last week by suggesting that filmmakers create the dreams that we experience while awake. It now occurs to me that some of those waking dreams, especially those we've been considering here, might ultimately influence the content of our nighttime dreams as well. To those who say that artists are irrelevant in our society, I say...dream on.

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