22 Dreamy Thrillers to Watch After ‘The Sandman’

22 Dreamy Thrillers to Watch After ‘The Sandman’
Screenshot: Eyes Wide Shut/Warner Bros. Pictures

After seemingly endless false starts, Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel opus The Sandman is finally coming to Netflix this week. Gaiman’s work has never translated easily to the screen, but when the process works, it has gifted us with singular films like Coraline and Stardust, and shows like Good Omens and the intermittently brilliant American Gods.

The story of Morpheus — the literal personification of dreams — freshly escaped from a long imprisonment by humans, The Sandman has the potential to top all them in its freaky, Gaiman-y weirdness. It’s a dense, layered, and long story that justifiably made the writer into a superstar…so let’s hope Netflix (and Gaiman, who was heavily involved) pulled it off.

In the meantime, the tales of Dream of the Endless aren’t the only stories that sit on the borderland between horror and dark fantasy. The best filmmakers know that even our good dreams contain within them the seeds of nightmares: the unsettling sense that logic has fallen away and that the rules of the waking world no longer apply. Here are 22 films caught in that weird space between.

Nightbreed (1990)

It begins with a nightmare: Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) dreams of Midian, a world of cackling and cavorting monsters — like some sort of demonic carnival, complete with a couple of absolutely sick cartwheels. Caught up in the schemes of a serial killer, Boone soon discovers that the psychedelic underground (under-cemetery, technically) city is indeed very real, and it’s inhabited by creatures as varied as those Boone thought he’d imagined. In the best Clive Barker style, the residents of Midian might be monstrous, but they aren’t monsters; they’ve created a safe space in a world that fears them, and Boone discovers, at first to his horror, that he has a lot more in common with them than he ever dreamed. Even when characters aren’t literally sleeping, everything in this underrated queer allegory operates by way of a dark dream logic.

Dead of Night (1945)

The O.G. horror anthology, Dead of Night’s setup gives Inception an early run for its money as architect Walter Craig (Melvyn Johns) arrives at a county cottage that he quickly realises he’s visited before, but only in a dream. He’s also convinced something fairly terrible is soon to happen, a contention dismissed by the assembled guests who amuse themselves by testing the visitor’s foresight (and patience) by relaying stories that might or might not have happened. In the end, the horrific does occur, and dreams (and dreams-within-dreams) wind up central to the story. This British film has been wildly influential, especially on the subject of malevolent ventriloquist dummies.

The Babadook (2014)

Unlikely queer icon Mister Babadook steps out of the pages of a wildly inappropriate children’s storybook and into the dreams of a single mother and her son in director Jennifer Kent’s instant classic. Serving as a parable about the dangers of burying grief and trauma, the film succeeds in large part by conjuring an increasingly isolated world for the two lead characters, one characterised by a lack of rest so profound it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish reality from fantasy. (It’s also, alternately, a story about how you can put together a flawless lewk and freak out the straights for fun, but that’s the subtext of most good horror movies.)

Take Shelter (2011)

Back in 2011, having apocalyptic dreams might have been seen as unusual or alarming; I’m not entirely sure if it hits quite as hard over a decade later, when deeply ominous portents are far easier to come by. Still! Michael Shannon and Jessica Chasten are incredible in this subdued thriller about Shannon’s Curtis, a construction worker fighting to conceal his dreams and (possible) hallucinations, as fearful of the real danger they might portend as of the thought he might be struggling with severe mental illness. Take Shelter builds a sense of creeping dread out of these twin fears: that the world might be coming to an end, and that we might be racing toward our own and unable to see it coming.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

It might be a bit of a stretch to describe Ingmar Bergman’s introspective masterpiece as a thriller, but even the most prosaic Bergman dramas contain moments of existential horror. Accompanied by his pregnant daughter-in-law (Bibi Andersson), 78-year-old Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is on his way to receive a special commendation for his 50-year career, but the aloof and irritable lecturer hasn’t much to show for his life beyond the achievements of his career. News of the award has exacerbated his feelings of isolation and fears of death, and the journey becoming a not entirely welcome opportunity for reflection, often in the form of some deeply disturbing dreams. In many ways, it’s among Bergman’s most hopeful films, but Isak’s journey to self-actualization takes him along a hard road.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Sold as a hyper-sexual fantasy starring America’s then-unbeatable acting power couple, audiences were initially lukewarm on Stanley Kubrick’s final film, though time has been kind to the story of one man’s very long, strange, weirdly unsexy night. Inspired (rather loosely) by Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick creates a fever dream that winds up being more about the dehumanising aspects of sexual obsession than the titillating romp audiences might have been expecting. Nobody creates a mood like Kubrick, never more so than in Eyes Wide Shut, plinky piano score and all.

Open Your Eyes (1997)

The life of spoiled, attractive rich boy César (Eduardo Noriega) has taken a decidedly bad turn: disfigured in an accident, he’s credibly accused of a crime that he can’t remember committing and which involves a case of mistaken identity. Flashbacks, partly revealed via dream and partly via conversations with a prison psychiatrist, reveal bits and pieces of his life before the accident and his imprisonment…but none of it quite adds up. Alejandro Amenábar’s second film blends science fiction with horror, adding in bit of romantic melodrama buoyed by great performances from Noriega and Penélope Cruz in her breakthrough role. (Later remade with Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky, but the original is creepier.)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Almost any of the Nightmare movies would serve here; The Dream Master isn’t the best of them (that’s the original), nor is it the best sequel (that’s Dream Warriors). It is, however, the most imaginative in its nightmare sequences. Earlier installments took Freddy more seriously, but Renny Harlin’s film heightens the character’s dark sense of humour without ending up in the more cartoonish territory of the next couple of movies. The most memorable sequence involves an insect-phobic teen turned into a cockroach before becoming trapped in an oversized roach motel, but the most impressive bit sees main character Alice (Lisa Wilcox) caught in a loop, a dream-within-a-dream, that rather brilliantly captures both the slippery nature of time within dreams, and that desperate, annoying feeling of frustration at their illogic.

Dark City (1998)

Sleep is an act of faith. We crawl in to bed at night and close our eyes with some confidence that the world isn’t going to get up to any particular shenanigans before morning. Dark City, a neo-noir masterpiece from director Alex Proyas (fresh off The Crow), suggests that any such hopes are wildly misplaced, as Rufus Sewell’s John Murdoch slowly comes to realise that there’s plenty going on when everyone else is asleep, things we’re perhaps better off not knowing about.

Phantasm (1979)

Grief is at the heart of Don Coscarelli’s original sci-fi slasher, a movie that’s either about an inter-dimensional mortician murdering teens with the aide of a flying sphere and his very short minions (compressed by the gravity of the alien world on which he has them working, naturally), or about a teenager processing his feelings about the loss his family members. Or it might all be a dream.

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Shockingly under-appreciated, this early Neil Jordan movie combines fairy-tale sensibilities with a fair bit of gore and tons of Freudian subtext. Plus Angela Lansbury. Modern teen Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) dreams that she’s living in a fairytale forest during the 18th century, where she finds herself in the role of Little Red Riding Hood even as she experiences other tales that play out as dreams within her dream. It’s an impressive piece of ‘80s-era fantasy/horror, and one in which dream and reality collide by the end.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Even if John Carpenter’s wildly underrated thriller didn’t turn on a couple of pivotal dream sequences, its late-night vibe would still make it an excellent selection for an insomniac slumber party. Here, we learn that the devil of Christian mythology is more than a metaphor, but an anti-matter being who has been trapped in a vessel beneath an old church for millennia. A warning from our future comes in the form of a dream shared by a group of quantum physics students. It’s all a rather unique blend of brainy and bonkers, and still effective as a zombie-esque siege movie if all the science talk leaves you cold.

The City of Lost Children (1995)

A brilliant, but not terribly pleasant scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork) has discovered the secret to prolonging his own life: stealing the dreams of children (this was once not as common a practice as it is today). Ron Perlman’s circus strongman, named One, sets out to rescue the kidnapped with the help of a young orphan in Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gorgeous dark fantasy.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

Some might quibble with the “thriller” designation for this Dr. Seuss-written and conceived children’s fantasy film, but, the fact is, it’s utterly terrifying. Think Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but about an unhinged music teacher determined to find enough children (5,000 fingers) to play his giant piano, with help from Heloise, his would-be bride who also happens to be the mother of the story’s dreamer, young Bart Collins. It doesn’t all hang together (what fever dream does?), but it’s got imagination to spare.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

It certainly sounds like a nightmare: you arrive for dinner, over and over, but are never given the chance to eat. Luis Buñuel uses the rituals of dining to absolutely skewer the moldering aristocracy of Europe (though it works in any context where there exists an upper class with more money and pretense than taste). Buñuel piles increasingly bizarre dinner-party interruptions (sex, military manoeuvres, inedible prop chickens) atop dreams until it’s not entirely clear what’s meant to be real and what isn’t, and entirely clear it doesn’t matter.

Kaboom (2010)

Apocalyptic dreams plague a bunch of queer film students in Gregg Araki’s candy-coloured apocalyptic fable, about a cult with plans to literally end everything. As teenage sex comedies go, it’s all in good fun, but New Queer Cinema icon Araki (The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, Mysterious Skin) brings his signature style in spades; I’m not sure the end times have ever been quite this horny.

The Wiz (1978)

It might be blasphemy, but for city kids of a certain age, The Wiz holds at least as much appeal as The Wizard of Oz, updating the story to Harlem of the 1970s and adding songs that are quite a bit funkier than those of the beloved 1939 classic. The visuals are also more psychedelic and sometimes scarier, pushing The Wiz more into the realm of dark fantasy than the sometimes scary, but overall more whimsical Wizard of Oz.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

I wouldn’t dare say with certainty that Alain Resnais’ French New Wave classic is literally about a dream — there’s much about the film that’s left entirely ambiguous and open to interpretation. Still, the story of unnamed characters inhabiting a (literally) palatial hotel that they may or may not have visited before certainly operates by dream logic, with time and space in constant flux.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

There’s not much in David Lynch’s oeuvre that couldn’t be said to exist in a dreamy, subconscious world. Various sequences in this powerful, challenging exploration of rape and sexual abuse feel like they were plucked out of nightmares, but there’s a central dream sequence that’s essential to the movie’s plot: Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) dreams of both past and future, receiving information that she’ll need later on with a little help from Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), a character from the future of Twin Peaks who singlehandedly throws into question this movie’s status as a prequel or sequel to the TV series.

Russian Ark (2002)

Alexander Sokurov’s film is a genuinely stunning technical and logistical achievement, in addition to being a thoughtful and entertaining film. With the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg as a set, the director and co-writer follows an unnamed narrator through centuries of Russian history, encountering figures of past and present along the way, and all in a single continuous take that lasts the entire 90-minute runtime. Three orchestras and 2,000 extras all had to coordinate flawlessly, and the results (space might be fixed as our lead character wanders, but time is certainly not) are absolutely dreamy.

Paperhouse (1988)

Be careful what you wish for, definitely…but be careful what you draw, too. So 11-year-old Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) discovers, first to her delight, then to her horror. The sick, bored child finds herself having incredibly vivid and disturbing dreams of the things that she draws: first a house, then a young boy, and then the troubled father who she inks with a cruel expression, and who later appears as an ogre in her paper house while she sleeps. It’s not terribly well known in the United States, but well worth seeking out.

Altered States (1980)

What if all of our other states of consciousness were as real as our waking one? Altered States finds William Hurt’s Dr. Edward Jessup exploring that idea via some plants and herbs stolen during a trip to Mexico. The substances they emit allow Dr. Jessup to not only share his dreams, but to externalize them, as he ultimately (and unintentionally) begins to devolve physically into the more primal consciousness of his dream states. It’s all incredibly trippy, if slightly too weird for its own good.

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