Reality or Rekall: Ten Films That Will Bend Your Mind

Have you ever been watching a movie with a really, really cool opening sequence that makes no sense at all, but still has you raptly engrossed due to its surreal imagery and nightmarish conceits, only to be completely let down by the eventual revelation that it’s only a dream sequence? I hate when that happens. I always secretly hope that the entire film will be as colorful and bizarre as the first few minutes, only to be lowered into a usual melodrama with all the predicable trappings therein.

Luckily for me, we have films like Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi classic Total Recall to contend with, and its 2012 sororal remake, which comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, December 18. Both versions of Total Recall follow a hard-working blue-collar everyman in a dystopian future, where one has the option of having false memories implanted directly into their brains as to offer them a sort-of virtual thrill vacation without having to actually go anywhere. Our hero chooses an implanted adventure vacation wherein he is secretly a spy, and he’s being chased by a vast conspiracy. Problem is, this implanted vacation is unpredictable and surprisingly dangerous, and people he knows are constantly cropping up telling him he may or may not have damaged his brain with this memory implant. Even by the film’s end, you’re never entirely sure whether or not our hero has been dreaming the entire film, or if he’s actually been enmeshed in some sort of bizarre memory-implant conspiracy.

In tribute to this wonderfully playful example of cinematic mind-fudgery, we here at CraveOnline have wracked our collective brain and produced the following list of ten bizarro feature films that have notoriously pulled the rug out from under its audience. More than just a litany of “it was all a dream” endings, these films can actually leave you a little staggered, and, if they do their job right, you may leave the theater (or turn off the TV) not exactly sure what to trust about reality in general.

Here, then, are ten films that will make you question the very nature of reality. Is it real, or is it Rekall?

In the Mouth of Madness (dir. John Carpenter, 1995)

A hugely popular horror author named Sutter Cane has gone missing, and it’s up to a mild-mannered and stolidly realistic insurance investigator played by Sam Neill to find him. The problem is, the more he investigates, the more our hero begins to realize that Sutter Cane may be hiding in a city that may or may not really exist, and could possibly have been somehow manifested through, of all things, the author’s writing itself. When the author does finally appear in the film (and is played by German actor Jürgen Prochnow), he says revealing but enigmatic things like “This town wasn’t here until I wrote it… and neither were you!” As his investigation continues, Sam Neill’s reality breaks down further and further, until he suffers an existential crisis; is he real, or has he actually been an author’s creation this whole time? Is he fictional? And can he fight his role in the story? Part noir film, part horror, and frequent mindf*ck, In the Mouth of Madness is a bizarre and creepy and often overlooked film in a skilled director’s largely impeccable canon.  

Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder, 2011)

An oddly fetishistic and arguably misogynist geek male masturbation fantasy, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch was a glitzy garbage disposal of steampunk, sci-fi, anime, and fantasy elements that never quite gels into a convincing drama, or even an enjoyable escapist entertainment. It was noisy, clunky, and didn’t make too much sense. But it can, at the very least, be openly admired for its stubborn refusal to stick to any one version of reality, constantly pulling back, as it does, layer after layer, until you’ve kind of lost track of the “baseline reading.” The lovely Emily Browning plays a young girl referred to only as "Babydoll" who has been stashed in a mental hospital by her wicked stepfather following the stepfather’s murder of Babydoll’s kid sister. The asylum already feels like a mixture of modern sensibilities and 1930s aesthetics, but it soon melts away to reveal a possible fantasy wherein Babydoll is actually a dancing prostitute in a glitzy high-end brothel, and all her friends are fellow prisoners. What’s more, Babydoll is a heck of a dancer, only her dances are represented by extended noisy fight scenes involving giant samurai robots, dragons, and steam-powered Nazis. I wouldn’t necessarily call Sucker Punch a good film, but it gets a few points for its audacious WTF-itude.

Carnival of Souls (dir. Herk Harvey, 1962)

You know something weird is going on all throughout this dreamy grindhouse classic, readily available on many low-quality public-domain DVDs, and a notable Criterion edition. It might be the hazy photography. It might be the constant panic of the leading lady. It might be the creepy haunted house-like organ score. But you can just tell that all of reality is kind of askew in Carnival of Souls. Candace Hilligoss plays a church organist named Mary who, at the film’s outset, gets into a mean car wreck. Grateful to be alive, Mary’s idyll is soon ruptured by the odd appearance of ghost-like weirdoes stalking her in broad daylight. She also has a compulsion to return to the scene of the accident, and a nearby shuttered carnival which seems to be populated by white-face ghouls and other unknowable miscreants. Mary soon begins to question whether or not she had survived the crash, and we get a similar panicky sense that she may not have. But we’re never quite sure. Atmospheric and foggy, Carnival of Souls is a horror classic.

Hellraiser: Inferno (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2000)

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (dir. Rick Bota, 2002)

Hellraiser: Deader (dir. Rick Bota, 2005)

Many of you have probably seen Clive Barker’s 1987 S&M gore classic Hellraiser, and some of you may have even seen its bonkers 1988 sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II, also a pretty amazing horror flick in its own right. However, only the most devout Hellraiser fans have trekked through all nine (yes, nine) of the Hellraiser films. Something frustrating about the middle portion of the extended straight-to-video franchise is that they all feature the exact same twist ending, which reveals (SPOILER ALERT) that the film’s lead character had been dead throughout the whole film, and the monsters/cults/criminals they had been pursuing were denizens of Hell designed to – I suppose – acclimate our heroes to living in a realm of eternal sexual and physical torture. Parts 5 through 7 all feature amoral authority figures or citizens who come upon the famous puzzle box used to summon the evil cenobites, open it, and spend about 90 minutes being haunted by bizarre visions of monsters. At each of the films’ endings, Pinhead (Doug Bradley) appears to explain that they are already in Hell, and they are being punished for their transgressions. When taken as a unit, these three films serve as a fun serialized and almost meditative repetition of one single story. Don’t watch one. Watch all three!

Jacob’s Ladder (dir. Adrian Lyne, 1990)

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) was once subjected to drug experiments when he was a solider in Vietnam. Trauma #1. He is also attempting to live down the sad memory of his family’s death a few years’ previous. Trauma #2. He now lives in a small apartment with a bitter girlfriend, and can only really trust his angelic doctor. He is lonely, hurt, and sad. And then the demons start appearing. Trauma #'s 3 through 100. This would be enough for a pretty awesome supernatural drama, but Jacob’s Ladder goes one step beyond, implying that Jacob may actually be having a nightmare, an acid flashback to his Vietnam days, or even picturing the wrathful blood-drinking deities that will eventually overpower him and take his soul to Hell. Adrian Lyne’s thriller is a moody and excellent potboiler that transcends any pulpy notions with a slow pace, gorgeous photography, excellent acting, and an actual thoughtful approach to the notion of unraveling reality. Jacob may be sick, he may have suffered chemical brain damage, he may even be dead. When you’re staring down some of the truly original creatures in this film, though, your only thought will be to flee.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1972)

No one could mess with your mind like Luis Buñuel, and none of his films mess with your mind more than his amusing political pseudo-comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Well, some props go to his earlier surrealist short films L’Age D’Or, El, and of course Un Chien Andalou, but Discreet Charm is, in its own way, all the more disturbing than the early films, because it slowly makes you think that you’re watching a straightforward melodrama, only occasionally hinting that something might be slightly amiss in the proceedings. A sextet of well-to-do white people spend the bulk of the film trying to gather for a nice meal in various locales, only to be interrupted by increasingly weird circumstances. At one restaurant, they feel they must leave because one of the waitstaff just died in the other room. In another restaurant, they are led into a darkened room which turns out to be a stage in front of an on-looking audience. Then the film’s chronology begins to fall apart. Dialogue is actively muted, and you begin to get the sense that we’re watching the dream of one of the characters, or even that none of the characters may be “real” in the conventional sense. In Buñuel’s world, dreams and reality are pretty much the same thing, and Discreet Charm illustrates this with aplomb, humor, and a few not-so-subtle political messages about the rich.

Lost Highway (dir. David Lynch, 1997)

Pretty much any one of David Lynch’s movies could perhaps be counted as reality-bending dream sequences, but I choose to focus on his 1997 film Lost Highway, as I feel it to be the director’s most underrated film. David Lynch has famously said that mysteries are wonderful, and being lost in a mystery is such a gratifyingly freeing experience that it can only be ruined by an ultimate solution. As such, his films tend to mete out increasingly bizarre incidents that make sense in an emotional (usually fearful) way, but are never made clear in any sort of physical or structural way. There are dream sequences that may be couched in other dream sequences. In Lost Highway, Bill Pullman plays an impotent jazz musician who may or may not have murdered his blank-faced wife, played by Patricia Arquette. He doesn’t seem to rightly remember. While languishing in prison, Pullman seems to inexplicably physically transform into Balthazar Getty, calling into question every notion of identity. When Patricia Arquette reappears as a different person, we can’t be sure if we’re watching a fantasy, a comment on fictional identities, or the illusions we construct around ourselves. What’s more, Lost Highway is gorgeous, and can easily count amongst Lynch’s best looking films. A dream-like noir mystery surrounded by dark and troubling things, Lost Highway is due for constant re-visitation.

Waking Life (dir. Richard Linklater, 2001)

You can’t make a movie about dreams without at least teasing the notion that life itself might be a dream. The better chapters in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise did it. Dreamscape did it. Inception did it to great effect. The best film about dreams, though, is probably Richard Linklater’s animated feature Waking Life. Staged as a series of conversations on diverse topics ranging from gun control to government conspiracies to evolution to the very nature of existentialism (there is a cameo by famed philosophy professor Robert Solomon), Waking Life follows a largely mute protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) as he seems to drift unconsciously from one subject to the next. The quality and casualness of the philosophical musings would be enough to make this film a cognitive rocking good time, but Waking Life goes one step further to imply that all these characters may be the protagonists dream, and that he is having difficulty waking up, adding a fun existentialist wrinkle to an otherwise funny/serious flick. It only helps that the jittery animation style is largely unlike any other visual experience you’ll have at the movies. You may leave with a new point of view or two. Or three. Or a dozen. And you’ll be trying to wake yourself up.

eXistenZ (dir. David Cronenberg, 1999)

1999 saw two awesome techno-thrillers about machines that can implant reality directly into your brain. Much has been written about Wachowski Starship’s The Matrix and how it sort of rattled the zeitgeist a little bit, and certainly changed the face of action films for the next few years, but far more cerebral on the matter was David Cronenberg’s fleshy and low-profile counterpart eXistenZ, a film about virtual reality video games, and how they tend to alter one’s perceptions to the point of dangerous ideological rewiring. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a video game designer whose latest game, “eXistenz,” plugs directly into your spine, and feeds its information directly into your brain. It’s being beta-tested when an assassin tries to shoot our heroine with a gun (made of human bone!), and she flees with a bodyguard played by Jude Law. If The Matrix was all about its flash, then eXistenZ is all about its sparseness. As our heroes spend more time within the game universe, their perception of what is real slowly beings to deteriorate. “What if we’re not in the game anymore?” In a world of extensive video game ubiquity and ever-present distracting tech, eXistenZ offers a grave warning.

Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

One of the best films ever made, and one you’ve likely seen before, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon is one of the cleverest films about the way cinema itself tends to filter the truth. The film is told in flashback from the perspective of a baffled traveler (Takashi Shimura) retelling the story of a murder in the woods. As we hear each version of the story from varying witness testimonies (including a widow, a traveling rogue, and even the ghost of the victim himself via a medium) we become increasingly confused about who is telling the truth. It’s especially baffling, as each eyewitness claims to be the guilty party. What is going on here? We’re never given a concrete version of things, and it’s constantly pointed out how natural and human it is to lie. This is especially mind-bending when you begin to consider the nature of cinema itself, and how, on a very fundamental level, everything we see on a movie screen should be considered “true.” The actual truth of cinema is called into question, and we begin to see that multiple and contradictory versions of this story may all be true, or may all be untrue, and we’re not given the comfort of a baseline “reality” to keep us grounded. Rashomon is a brilliant movie, a reality-jamming one, and a brilliant meditation on the truth of cinema, as well as the nature of truth itself.