Tom Jolliffe on turning nightmares into cinema, and the most nightmarish film ever made…
Nightmares are a powerful thing. Whether it’s teeth falling out, falling, drowning or being chased by a persistent foe, there are some specific nightmares common among many of us. Most of us have probably had that dream of trying to run and being caught in slow motion, or being late and never unable to get to something on time.
Cinema allows film-makers to form these surreal subconscious dreams into a coherent and fully formed stories. Turning dreams to film has been done to great effect by many film-makers. I think of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, formed of almost structureless vignettes that meld memories with dreams beautifully. Nightmares though, that breathless fear they can induce, causing you to wake up sweating, are a treasure trove of inspiration.
Many of the silent era German expressionist horrors beautifully tapped into our nightmares. Purely visual, and full of surreal imagery and lots of use of shadows with creatures emerging from out of dark as they are wont to do in our nightmares. Think of Nosferatu, or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Ingmar Bergman often included nuggets of nightmarish imagery, in films like Wild Strawberries (which was more drama). Perhaps his most overt horror had imagery right out of nightmare, in Hour Of The Wolf, though again, much of the film is more of a cerebral and psychological drama.
In the 80’s of course we had the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. It was born out of nightmares, very surreal, playing off old myths and local stories. The structure of the films, and the personality added to Freddy made them less overtly like a direct extraction of ones actual nightmares. Alien had elements of it too, but again this ability to pull back, take stock and create breathing space before intricately timed scares. More recently films like Buried and It Follows have taken recognisable common nightmares and effectively transferred the feeling into film.
Which film has most effectively created a nightmare on film? Step forward James Cameron. His breakout film and to date his most important mark on cinematic history… The Terminator. The form of the film, it’s relentless pace, beats and it’s soulless unstoppable villain are pure nightmare. There’s a reason that what in essence was a B-picture, could be considered a masterpiece some 36 years later. Many film-makers of the era were making similar films, similar ideas with recognisable B movie tropes. Occasionally they gained some cult popularity doing so, but something about The Terminator, elevates it above contemporaries existing in lower end theatrical releases and the video boom of the time. Cameron gave us an engaging heroine, aided by a man who technically shouldn’t exist in her time. Nightmares and dreams can transcend time and space. We may have allies in our subconscious with our nightmare scenario, people born of fantasy, past, present or an envisioned future. Sarah Connor, aided by a saviour from the future must continually outrun an inhuman monster that never stops.
Schwarzenegger in his almost beyond human form was never more perfectly cast. It’s a performance that’s underrated because he switches off his humanity to a point where you can almost feel the CPU processing data and running responses in real time. I’ve seen so many over the years trying to do the same, coming off as goofy, or as a mediocre street mime pulling rote robotic movements. For just over 90 minutes, Arnie is completely and utterly robotic. Interestingly, Andrei Tarkovsky who thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was style over substance, and was very much deeply into cinema as an art form, thought The Terminator was great: “The brutality and low acting skills are unfortunate, but as a vision of the future and the relation between man and his destiny, the film is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art.” Indeed while many might attest Terminator 2: Judgment Day is bigger and better, it’s a film that’s actually guilty of doing many things synonymous with the money making sequel. Arnold is back and turned into a catch phrase ready hero, whilst the ante is very much upped, but the film, though remains the best action blockbuster of the 90’s, loses some of the art of the original, the purity of pacing and vision, and most certainly the nightmarish quality.
Whilst I’ll have to disagree on his summation of the acting, and the brutality is something that many fans of course like (indeed it plays right into the nightmarish vibe), it shows an appreciation for a kind of film that the high brow cinephiles would have been loathe to share on a B-movie. Those stages within the film, particularly once Sarah first encounters Arnold, play out with few breaks, and even those brief respites leave a lingering sense of an impending interruption. Even when they appear to have bested the Terminator, he emerges from flame in his endo skeleton form, a kind of turn of events that echo that storm after the storm that is common within nightmares. Just when you think it’s over, it’s not.
What’s the most nightmarish film you’ve seen? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.