Dreams Within Films, Films Within Dreams

Films Reviewed in this Essay:

“Dreams.” Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Alexander Borodyansky. 1993 (Russia).

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” Directed by Wes Craven. 1994 (United States).

In both “Dreams” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” a young heroine is sudden ly, and frighten ing ly, unable to distinguish her dreams from her waking life. And in both films the audience becomes as disoriented as she is by the abrupt shifts between scenes appearing to portray dreams and scen es appearing to portray the waking lives of the charac ters. By skill fully inter twining the epistemological confu sion experi enced by the charac ters and by the audiences, the two films compel us to reconsider our own conventional perceptions of reality–the films demand in particular that we take a fresh look at the mounting social and cultural troubles of the late 20th century. “Dreams” lays bare the grubby, Western ized decadence of post-Cold War Rus sia, while “Wes Craven’s New Night mare” unmasks the horrors living behind the white fences and green lawns of suburban America. The films thus use the private, psychological experi ence of dreaming as a powerful narrative device to make broader claims about the public, social world of our waking lives.

“Dreams” begins with images of paintings from Tsarist era-Russia, showing beautiful, idyllic country land scapes. We then see a young Countess named Masha Stepanova telling an elderly doctor of her disturb ing, and very sexual, dreams. Masha tells him that she’s been dreaming of the future, of 1993, and of working in a seedy Moscow canteen where the owner has been making passes at her. The prim doctor, flustered by Masha’s forthright refer ences to sexuality, tells her to ignore the dreams and get some rest.

Next we see Masha, dressed as a wait ress, asleep in the grimy kitchen of the canteen.[i] The owner wakes her up and awkwardly asks if she’d like to go and watch a pornographic video with him. She brushes him off and goes to clear the counters. At one counter stands a tall man in an overcoat, who slyly asks if Masha would like to star in a movie he’s making. Intrigued, she listens to him describe the plot: it’s about the August 1991 revolution, when the old guard communists had the democratic resistance surrounded at the White House. In the film, the resistance fighters know that the army is planning an attack, and they need a young woman to go out and seduce the army’s top general into re vealing the time of the attack. As the tall man in the overcoat spins out the tale, Masha is sudden ly in that film; suddenly she’s inside the general’s tent, dressed in an absurdly seductive military outfit, and as the general lustfully embraces her Masha realizes it’s the canteen owner–

Masha the Countess abruptly wakes up, and her husband the Count (who, we now see, is the tall man in the over coat) asks with deep concern if she’s all right. When Masha tells him she had anoth er strange dream, the Count says he’s going to take her on a vaca tion to their dacha in the Crimea, so she can rest her nerves.

If this sounds hard to follow, it is. As the film goes on, Masha’s tangled experiences become more and more ludicrous. In the next scene of her 1993 life, Masha is essentially sold by her hustler husband (the Count) to two Russian govern ment officials. They make her the country’s new Minister of the Economy, so she can meet and seduce an official from the International Monetary Fund, and there by persuade him to give Russia hard currency. Then Masha is suddenly part of a Western-wannabe glam rock band, shaking her barely-clad body to the electric beat while the big-haired lead singer (the Count) growls out dirty, moronic lyrics. And then she’s a contestant in a garish “best bust contest,” in which the emcee (the Count again) compli ments her breasts as superbly “represent ing Russia.” He asks the audience to bid for the privilege of kissing her bust, with the proceeds going to a pentacostal Christian charity.

Back in her Tsarist-era life, Masha tries to convince the incred ulous Count that what she’s seeing in her dreams is true. He, though, refuses to believe that such a chaot ic, corrupt, de bauchery-filled nation (which she says is now called “CIS”, although nobody knows what that means) could possibly exist. But after having a famous hypnotist examine Masha, the Count finally accepts the truth of his wife’s dreams. Feeling it his duty as a “Russian patriot,” he makes an earnest report to the Emper or warning of what the future holds for Russia and detailing the social and eco nomic reforms that must be taken to avert such a catastrophe. The Emperor doesn’t believe him, of course, and the Count leaves the meeting in deep despair. But when Masha hears what he’s done, she’s overjoyed; what matters to her is that he believed her. She leads him by the arm to a carriage, which carries them to their beautiful Crimean dacha.

At this point Masha the canteen waitress is jostled awake by the owner, who tells her it’s closing time and they have to clean up. As she clears the greasy tables, the audience realizes that this is Masha’s reality, this plain, drab 1993 exis tence in the canteen is her true waking life. Back in the kitchen, the canteen owner awkwardly asks if she would like to come with him to visit an old dacha he’s bought out in the country. After a pause, Masha says yes. They drive through the gray city, past the row after row of decaying factories, to the dacha. It’s immense, and almost totally ruined. Thick weeds surround the burned-out, crumbling structure. As Mashsa and the can teen owner walk through the building he tells her of his dreams of rebuild ing it–fixing the roof, repaint ing the walls, clearing the grounds. Masha wanders into what used to be a grand living room and sees on the floor an old, faded portrait, of a Count ess. The face she sees is her own.

“Dreams” develops a wonderful set of identities, con trasts, and mediations between Russian cultures of the late 19th and the late 20th centuries.[ii] The former was an era of glory, of sophistica tion, of elegance; the latter is a time of poverty, shame, and tawdri ness. But, the film reminds us, the Tsarist era suffered from a moral prudish ness that severely inhibited free expression, especially sexual expression. The Russia of 1993, if nothing else, is wide open to spontaneity and bawdy fun.

The key to the film is the concluding scene in which Masha, standing in the decrepit dacha, discovers the old portrait. Masha finds an image of herself–her hopes, ideals, and dreams–lying neglected in those shabby ruins. This is a moment of intense mourning for that which has been lost and for that which Masha will never have. But, as Masha looks into the beautiful eyes of her own reflected face, that very experience becomes a source of vitality, and of hope. The dacha is in terrible shape, but it could be repaired with enough hard work. The canteen owner is not particularly attractive, but he is fairly nice to her, and he does have noble hopes for the future.[iii] At the end of her long ordeal Masha has gained a deep er appreciation for her dreams and a clearer aware ness of her social world. The achieve ment of this mournful integration breaks the spell of passivity that binds her throughout the film, freeing her to become an active agent of her own future.

Like Masha, the heroine of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” finds herself thrown into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where the boundaries between dreams, films, and the waking world disappear. The movie begins with a film crew shooting a scene in which a new set of claws is forged for Freddy Kruger, the demonic villain who haunts teenagers’ dreams in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” mov ies. Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played the charac ter of Nancy in those movies, watches uneasily as the shooting pro ceeds.[iv] Her husband is the special effects technician in charge of creating the new claws, and he works with the crew to adjust the claws’ razor-sharp blades. Suddenly the claws start moving by them selves; a second later they’ve gone wild, brutally killing two crew members and coming straight for Heather’s husband, slicing his hand–and then Heather wakes up and is seized by a new surge of panic as her home violently heaves, shakes, and crashes. It’s the 1994 Northridge earth quake, and she and her husband careen through their wildly bucking house to reach the room of their young son, Dylan. When the quake finally ends and calm returns, Heather gasps in horror: her husband’s hand is covered with blood, sliced just like it was in her dream. He says Heather was probably just half-awake when he cut himself on some glass; dreams are like that, he reas sures her. But then a sharp aftershock hits, and Heather watches as four long cracks rip across the living room wall, as if a huge claw were lunging at their home.

As the movie proceeds, Heather discovers that Freddy is indeed back, and somehow he’s reaching into the “real” world. She refuses to believe it, but when Dylan tells her he’s scared of the “mean old man with the claws” who threatens him in his dreams, and when he shows her the four slashes in his stuffed dinosaur Rex, Heather realizes she has to do something. She goes to the Malibu mansion of Wes Craven, the creator of the “Night mare on Elm Street” series, and asks if he’s been having night­mares of Freddy. Yes, Craven says, he’s actually writing a new script–he has a dream, he writes a scene, he has another dream, he writes another scene. But Freddy’s not real, Heather insists. Craven sits Heather down and says he thinks he knows what’s going on. Freddy is the latest incar nation of an ancient, evil entity which lives for the sole pleasure of “murdering innocence.” That entity has gotten used to the Freddy form, Craven explains. Now it wants out of the films, and into the waking world.

When Heather asks how they can stop Freddy, Craven says the only way to capture that entity is through stories. Stories can bind the evil and hold it, for a time, like a genie in a bottle. Heather suddenly realizes what she has to do. She has to play Nancy again, and make another “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. She glances over at his computer, and sees on the screen a dialogue between herself and Craven–the exact conversation they just had.

So Heather goes to war with Freddy. When Dylan is hospitalized with a mysterious coma, Heather takes a deep breath and descends into Freddy’s hellish nightmare kingdom to fight for the life of her son. The climactic battle between Heather and Freddy is, of course, quite gory. Just as Freddy has Dylan in his grasp, pulling the screaming boy’s head into his horrible, impossibly widened mouth, Heather plunges a butcher’s knife (in the poetic words of the screen play) “deep between Freddy’s legs–her body blocking sight of exactly where, but we all get the idea. She shoves it hard and twists–as the howls of Freddy fill the world”.[v]

Freddy dies in a fiery, shrieking explosion, and Heather and Dylan tumble out of the boy’s bed and collapse onto the floor of his room. Realizing that Freddy is gone for good, Heather hugs her son tightly. Then she sees lying next to them a finished script. Dylan asks, is it a story? Yes, Heather answers, it’s a story. He asks, will you read me some? He snuggles against her as she opens to the first page and reads the scene about the film crew working on the shoot of the new claws.

The tremendous popularity of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies derives from Wes Craven’s brilliant ability to create a sympa thetic bond between his characters and the audi ence. Craven takes a mildly frightening experience we’ve all had (say, a bad dream) and subtly transforms it, in the world of his films, into a terrifying manifestation of true evil. Heather’s experi ences with the nightmares, the cracks in the wall, the strange phone calls and television malfunctions, all have apparently rational, non-mysterious explana tions. Everyone reassures her that there’s nothing to worry about. But Heather knows, and the audi ence knows with her, that no matter what other people say, there is evil afoot. From that increas ingly wide chasm between what society says and what Heather and the audience know, the fear intensifies to almost unbearable degrees, because now we’re totally isolated, and totally vulnerable–the evil is really out there, and we’re facing it all by ourselves.

The most interesting aspect of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is the way it reflects on the horror movie genre itself. As Craven says to Heather, these movies serve as a means of evok ing, and then containing (for a time), the violent, aggressive impulses that are seething in contempo rary American society. Throughout this film Craven draws parallels between horror movies and fairy tales, and the comparison does have merit. Both portray the experiences and perspectives of children, both have very spare, essen tially mythological narra tive themes, both are filled with blood, brutality, and violence, and both have moments of crude, bawdy humor. Heather’s reading “Hansel and Gretel” to Dylan earlier in the film, and then reading the script to him at the end, makes this equation as plain as possible.[vi]

Craven is suggesting that just as in earlier times fairy tales served to address the psychologi cal and spiri tual needs of children (despite the disapproval of moralizing adults), so today horror movies speak to those same needs felt by children in our society (despite the disapproval of moralizing adults). Fairy tales and horror movies appeal so deeply to children precisely because adult rationality is so incapa ble of truly helping kids in their struggles against the evils surging both in and around them.

“Dreams” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” build up multiple nest ings of dreams, films, and waking realities that are every bit as complex as the mind-bending dream-within-dream plots of certain Indian myths.[vii] To summarize, if that’s possible: “Dreams” is a film about Masha Stepanova, a 1993 canteen wait ress, dreaming of being a 19th century Countess, who is dreaming of being a 1993 canteen waitress, who is suddenly thrust into an absurd film about the 1991 revolution. “Wes Craven’s New Night mare” is a film about Heather Langenkamp, the actress from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, dreaming of Freddy Kruger, the arch-villain from those movies, and having to go into her dreams, and then into his cinematical ly-created nightmare world, in order to save her son and stop Freddy from escaping into her waking world. What are we, as the audience watching these films from the “outside,” to make of all this?

Myself, I first call on Freud’s hermeneutic principle that a dream within a dream is the most direct and uncensored expres­sion of the dreame r’s reality.[viii] Thus, Masha’s film-with in-a-dream-with in-a-dream-within-a-film reveals in comic, exag­gerated, but painfully honest terms something that’s really happening in contemporary Russia: a crass commercial exploitation of the nation’s natural and cultural treasures. Heather’s film-within-a-dream-within-a-film shows, amid all the blood-spattered mayhem, something that’s really happening in contempo rary Ameri ca: a failure by adults to recog nize that children desperately need help in dealing with an in creasingly violent society.

Of course, my feelings about these films are colored by the ways they’ve influenced my own dreams. The night after seeing “Dreams”, I dreamed I was in a film–it was a bad science-fiction movie, just like the 1950’s cult classic “The Amazing Colossal Man.” And the night after seeing “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” I dreamed that Freddy Kruger was chasing after me and Heather, threatening my child (who is named, in my waking life, Dylan). All of which leads me to ask a modern variant of the ancient Hindu question: am I just a character in some Director’s film?


[i].. The jerky motion of the camera throughout this scene seems intended to suggest that this is a “dream,” in relation to the “waking” scene of Masha in the doctor’s office.

[ii].. In a question and answer session after the showing I attended, one of the directors said the film is “dealing with present difficulties by making fun comparisons between the past and the present.”

[iii].. A feminist critique could easily be made at this point, that in both the past and the present Masha is subjected to the dominance of males; the apparent freedom she gains at the film’s conclusion still depends on the support of a man.

[iv].. Most of the film’s main characters play themselves, which further blurs the lines between film and “reality.”

[v].. Quoted from the 10-26-93 version of the screenplay, p. 98.

[vi].. Although I felt that the film’s one false note was the use of “Hansel and Gretel,” which provides a poor analogy to the story of the film. “Hansel and Gretel” is about a brother and sister dealing with parental abandon ment and hunger, while “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is, in these structural terms, about a mother and son fight ing off pater nal/phallic aggression. “Hansel and Gretel” does, howev er, provide Craven with the themes of the secret trail back home and the villain’s demise in a fiery oven, which he uses to good effect in the film.

[vii].. See Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[viii].. “If a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event–the strongest affirmation of it.” (emphasis in the original). Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (trans. James Strachey) (New York, NY: Avon Books, 1965), p. 374. See also pp. 526-527.

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