10 Films That Capture the Surrealness of Sleep


From the director who brought us the wild conspiracy theories behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237 comes Rodney Ascher’s new film, The Nightmare . After a bout of terrifying sleep paralysis, the filmmaker decided to document the similar experiences of several people for a surreal and eccentric journey through the subconscious. Anything can happen in a dream — and the hazy space between sleep and reality is great fodder for filmmakers. Here are just a few films that explore the subject of sleep in compelling ways.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Sorry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but your 1978 sibling — directed by Philip Kaufman — makes us never want to sleep again, lest we become duplicated by aliens who want to use our emotionless doppelgängers to destroy the human race.

The Machinist

The biggest WTF of Christian Bale’s career, the actor lived on water, apples, and coffee for several months in order to lose 62 pounds for his role of the insomniac machinist in Brad Anderson’s 2004 film. Roger Ebert wrote of the movie:

We see Trevor’s world so clearly through his eyes that only gradually does it occur to us that every life is seen through a filter. We get up in the morning in possession of certain assumptions through which all of our experiences must filter. We cannot be rid of those assumptions, although an evolved person can at least try to take them into account. Most people never question their assumptions, and so reality exists for them as they think it does, whether it does or not. Some assumptions are necessary to make life bearable, such as the assumption that we will not die in the next 10 minutes. Others may lead us, as they lead Trevor, into a bleak solitude. Near the end of the movie, we understand him when he simply says, “I just want to sleep.”

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Disney’s 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty enchants with a story of true love awakened with a kiss, but terrifies children with nightmarish scenes and a villainess more wicked than the average bogeyman.

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Julia Leigh’s haunting mood piece Sleeping Beauty is the erotic nightmare of a living doll (Emily Browning) who becomes immersed in the strange fantasies of an underground society. She drinks tea that makes her fall asleep instantly. Unknowingly, different men join her in bed. The film has no happily ever after like its namesake, but through these bizarre rituals, the Beauty is awakened.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Being a teenager is hard, especially when you become trapped in your dreams with a supernatural monster your parents tried to vanquish when he was still alive and murdering children. Dark family secrets come to light in the dreams of the younger generation in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. “Don’t fall asleep,” NOES’ heroine warns her friends as they are slowly slaughtered one by one in their dreams. Eventually final girl Nancy Thompson realizes she must turn her back on the pizza-faced killer to take away his power, but sleep doesn’t come easy for the teens that follow her in the sequels.

The Science of Sleep

It doesn’t get more twee than a Michel Gondry movie, and The Science of Sleep ranks right up there with his best. Gael García Bernal’s inventor Stéphane lives inside a vivid dream world, which overtakes his life when he falls in love with his neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Stéphane has innocent, romantic notions of love and relationships that are revealed as stunted. But in dreams, his inventions come to life, and the insecurities melt away.


In the future, psychotherapy has been replaced with dream therapy, which allows doctors to view people’s dreams in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. But dreams can be abused and invaded this way, too. Kon’s talent for seamlessly weaving the uncanny dream state with reality through fantastical imagery is stunning.

Before Sunrise

TFW you fall in love at first sight, stay up all night to talk, and wonder if it’s real. There’s just no time for sleep.

Fight Club

David Fincher tackles an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, reminding us not to sleep comfortably amongst our belongings for they eventually wind up owning us. Edward Norton insomniac character eschews a warm-milk remedy for sleep and opts for joining an anti-materialist and anti-corporate guerrilla organization, getting his ass kicked in an underground fight club, and dabbling with a few dissociated personalities.


Dreamscape fans remember the 1984 film for one reason: the eerie snakeman. The terrifying creature is the embodiment of a young boy’s anxiety and pain in the film about a psychic (Dennis Quaid) who becomes trapped inside a dream world. Quaid’s character becomes part of a study that allows psychics to link minds with people during REM sleep, but not everything is as it seems (natch). Like its subject, Dreamscape melds minds with the best of low-budget horror, sci-fi, and drama. Here, sleep is a political metaphor about the imbalance of power between a government and the public.