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For most of us, our first real horror experience involved a bad dream. Your parents could keep you safe and warm during the day, but once you laid your wee head on your wee pillow and you closed your eyes, you knew you were playing Russian roulette (even if you didn't know that term at the time, unless maybe your parents were Russian, or gangsters). You slept, you dreamed and sometimes you woke up screaming. Other horrific encounters -- from fun stuff like horror movies and books to un-fun stuff like fights, death in the family or, worst of all, algebra class -- came later... Hoo, give me a second here. I just had a shiver on that last one.
Because we've all experienced nightmares at some point, they're a breeding ground for the horror genre. Interestingly, though, when it comes to film count (which is like "body count," you know, but with movies instead of corpses), nightmares can't hang with hallucinations. All of us have had a bad dream. Most of us haven't had a genuine hallucination, and yet they seem to dominate the genre. But if you turn your mind to slumber-driven visions, some cinematic winners and losers readily come to mind.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Let's just cut to the chase, shall we? There is one be-all and end-all emperor of the dream subcategory, and that's Freddy Krueger. The Nightmare series made beaucoup bucks on nightmares (hence, the title, and yeah, I'm quick like that). Twenty-five years in, the horror world is still all a-twitter about the upcoming reboot. And if you're curious, a "reboot" is like a "remake," except that the new directors and producers are going to try and pretend it's their movie and they're the geniuses for creating it, rather than the people who created the original classic in the first place.
If any movie were to give Freddy a run for his nasty-ass Dream Sweater™, it would be 1984's Dreamscape. A young Dennis Quaid plays a scientist who resists being converted into a "dream assassin" for the military, because in the movies, our government is always bad, m'kay? One theme seems to prevail in nightmare movies -- if you die in your dreams, you die for real. Haven't seen Dreamscape? It's more scifi that straight-up horror, but if you're killing folks in their dreams, it counts. Hey, don't argue with me on that point: File a torte in the court of Freddy if you want to get kicked in the docket. I loved this movie when I was in high school, and quite frankly, I'm afraid to watch it again for fear that '80s effect will spoil the memory. It's total formula, but a formula that's produced hundreds of successful, enjoyable flicks.
I often claim this cult masterpiece is one of the most disturbing horror movies of all time, and I stand by my opinion. The shaky people get me all fired up. I still have trouble watching this movie, and I write horror novels for a living. The nightmares of protagonist Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) blur the line between dream and hallucination, like a bad acid trip where reality is always in question. If you haven't seen it, rent it. Trust me. I'm a doctor.
Ambitious med students (including Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon) decide it would be a peachy keen idea to play around with near-death experiences. They arrange their own clinical deaths -- they "flatline," as the medicos say -- and are resuscitated after a minute. During their short stay in the afterlife, they have all kinds of happy-happy Sesame Street visions... not. And when those retarded med students come back to life, those visions come with them. Like Jacob's Ladder, Flatliners walks a fine line between a hallucination movie and a nightmare movie, but it's still got some solid spooky in there.
OK, you know this one is made of suck right off the bat, before you ever pull that old garage sale, 25-cent VHS tape out of the scuffed-up cardboard sleeve. Why? Start with the tagline, which might just be the worst ever: "The scream you don't hear ... is your own." From a physics standpoint, that's just crazy talk. If you can scream, you're kind of alive. And unless you had screwdrivers pressed into your ears in an earlier scene, you can hear. So you scream, you hear it, and then you die. Sheesh... I'm not even going to watch this one. That's right, stopped cold by a silly tagline even before I get to the "bad dream" part.
So what's your nightmare, Dear Reader? Which movies did I miss? Just jot them down in the comments field below. And remember, we're looking for nightmare movies, not hallucination movies. Sleepy time is a factor, which makes a big difference.
New York Times best-selling author Scott Sigler writes tales of hard-science horror, then gives them away as free audiobooks at www.scottsigler.com. His novel INFECTED was named as Border's #1 mystery, thriller and horror novel for 2008. His next major hardcover horror/thriller ANCESTOR will be out on May 4, 2010. And you want top-grossing? Scott is the top-grossing Short Bald Dude from Cheboygan Horror Author of all time. That's right, all time! So put that in your pipe and smoke it, people.