It's an overused trope, I'll give you that. The idea that an entire movie is merely a delusion or dream of a certain character's mind is at least as old as The Wizard of Oz, and can be as explicitly stated as Fight Club or as subtly hinted as Taxi Driver. It's a fun way to mess with your audience, and it never really goes out of style.
That being said, the majority of movies take place in the real world, or at least the real constructed world of their settings. There are a few that claim to that frankly I no longer buy, and a fair amount of fan theorizing backs me up on this. Today we look at three beloved films that you may think you know, but that are obviously just mind-benders from a character's troubled noggin.
The Movie You Know: Ferris Bueller is the most popular kid in his school. He runs the joint, but not with his all-consuming control over space and time like history's greatest monster, Zack Morris. One day he ditches the institution by faking illness, dragging along his timid, sick friend Cameron and his smoking hot girlfriend Sloane. The trio have the best day of their lives gallivanting about the city, and '80s America was taught the important lesson of forsaking education and cheating the system with computers in less than two hours.
But...: The whole scenario never happens, it is all a figment of Cameron's imagination possibly brought on while he was feverish.
Ferris is a character that is unbelievable, even for a John Hughes creation. Absolutely every inch of fate aligns to his whim throughout the movie in sharp juxtaposition to the much more human and believable Cameron. It's obvious that Cameron lives under the roof of a cold, Type A, distant father who neglects his son in favor of conspicuous consumption and corporate advancement. Left alone, his mind begins to wander.
Ferris is more or less Cameron's Tyler Durden, the living embodiment of everything he is lacking. Where Cameron is lonely -- it's telling that he interacts almost exclusively with Ferris throughout the film -- Ferris is the subject of a pledge drive for the slightest illness. Cameron is terrified of the slightest infraction; Ferris breaks laws and rules with impunity.
Only in the end, when Cameron in a delirious rage destroys his father's prize car, the entire imagined episode being a mental crutch to catalyze the frenzy, does Cameron break free of his own mental prison, banishing Ferris and Sloane to absurdly happy endings while he himself prepares to face the real world.
The Movies You Know: Harry Potter was orphaned and raised by his aunt and uncle, who treat him far worse than his cousin Dudley. It's all good, though; turns out that Harry is a wizard. The best wizard ever. He totally takes down an evil madman, picks up a coterie of friends and mad-fine schoolgirls on the way, and ends up with the perfect life after becoming the hero of an age. Good for you, Harry.
But...: Here's a quote. Guess where it's from.
Child demonstrates withdrawn behavior, refuses to participate or dress appropriately for physical activities, and/or appears to spend extended periods of time in a fantasy world;
That's a helpful little organization called the Children's Right Foundation, who lists a thoroughly depressing number of symptoms of child abuse. What else would you call forcing a boy to live in a cupboard under the stairs and not considering him part of the family at all? It's pretty much the exact same story as Dave Peltzer, the famous Child Called It. Well, except for the horrendous physical abuse.
Wait a minute... doesn't Harry seem to spend an awful lot of time at "Hogwarts" in medical care? Mysteriously beaten in the first film, broken bones, a bad fall in the third, another horrific beating while "invisible" in the Half Blood Prince. Let's check the list again.
Unexplained fractures to nose, face, ribs, legs or other parts of body;
Other types of abrasions or lacerations appearing on the body which have no apparent reasonable explanation;
Child continually hungry;
Lack of supervision especially in dangerous situations or while participating in activities which extend over long periods of times;
Eventually, even his fantasy haven of Hogwarts is not enough to save him, and he is forced to flee even that during the final two movies. Clearly, Harry's wizarding adventures are nothing more than a coping mechanism to keep him barely sane until the day he finally leaves the Dursleys forever.
The Movie You Know: Brad and Janet get a flat tire in the rain, and seek shelter in a mysterious house. It turns out it's home to an alien scientist and his henchmen, who are creating life in order to have the perfect sex slave, but still have plenty of mojo left over to seduce their guests before the whole things turns into a cabaret massacre. It's pretty much the perfect film.
But...: It was once mentioned in passing to me by Houston's star shadow cast Riff Raff Jim Cahoon, who has played the role off and on for more than a decade, that the movie took place all in his own favorite character's mind. I laughed about it then, but was watching the movie last night and realized that he may in fact be on to something.
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According to Cahoon, who took care to remind me of the difference between jokes and reality...
Every character represents a different perspective on how Riff perceives Frank: the spark who first awakens him sexually (Brad/Janet), the god-like figure who's abandoned him (Columbia), a threat sexually and intellectually (Eddie/Dr. Scott), a caretaker (Rocky), etc. I especially liked describing the whip scene as Riff flagellating himself with doubt and conflict over how he should truly and properly see Frank.
He may have been in jest, but it does make a movie that already reads like a weird Penthouse letter into something much more psychologically compelling. It's possible that Riff is merely the servant of a powerful man who is slowly going mad through a combination of mental illness and sexual repression. His relationship with Magenta suggests a history of familial sexual abuse, as does his constant desire for control. All the science fiction settings are merely fantasy escapes, with each of the characters probably representing mundane real-life counterparts.
One of the last things Riff says in the movie, while standing over the body of his former boss is, "They didn't like me. They never liked me" in a heart-rending wail. It's such a bizarre line because at no time does Riff ever give the impression that he cares even the slightest what Frank thought of him. This is the moment the fantasy comes crashing down, and it's likely he woke up covered in blood like Steven in Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare.