A courtroom can be a terrifying place. Sure, it can be boring if you’re in the jury having to sit through a trial for a petty offence, but imagine if you, or a character you sympathise with, stands before a judge, accused of a heinous crime they may not have even committed. Anticipation of a horrible event can at times feel more uncomfortable than the actual event, and a good trial scene takes advantage of that, with the fear of the accused and the lawyers, the stern expression of the judge and the regal atmosphere of the courtroom itself.
And how can we make a trial even more unnerving? Why, make it as surreal as possible! A court is a place of order, so the presence of chaos should be even more noticeable there, especially if they make things a little harder for the defendant. In film, dream sequences of a trial can be just as effective as a physical one. Trials with unorthodox elements pack an extra punch, so here are six examples of trials in film that not only threaten the protagonist with punishment, but put in a little extra nightmare to boot.
6) Clown Court – Psychoville
If there’s one thing Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Psychoville knew how to do, it was using surrealism to create a dark, unnerving feel without having to sacrifice comedy. This is reflected in its cast of characters; a dwarf with apparent psychic powers, a woman who believes her baby doll is alive, and there is the clown Mr. Jelly (played by Shearsmith).
The image of a disgruntled, perverted clown is a common one, but Mr. Jelly is a little bit more than that. Thanks to a little medical mistake, he lost his right hand, which made his job more difficult and led him to be more pessimistic than the jovial clown he used to be. Though he is cynical and prone to insulting others, there is a more sympathetic, vulnerable side to him, which is shown through a nightmare he has in the third episode. One where is tried in “Clown Court”.
Here, the same clown who told gruesome stories to kids and argued with their parents is now desperately screaming his side of the story and begging for release. And who could blame him? Clowns are creepy, after all, and they’re even creepier when they appear in full makeup in a place of law, putting their own weird twist on it. Judge Pennywise (oh very cute) wears make-up that resembles that of a skull, uses a squeaky gavel and uses playground rhymes when he wants silence in the court, and he takes it all very seriously too.
Another prominent character in the Psychoville series is Mr. Jelly, a rival to Jolly who gets revealed in full later in the same episode the trial occurs. In the trial though, he takes the form of Mr. Punch, an already disturbing character made even more disturbing when he accuses Mr. Jelly of ripping him off. Oh, and when he is made the size of a human, carrying an axe.
“Clown Court” is everything a trial-based dream sequence should be; it takes the conventions of a trial and turns them on their head in a disturbingly childlike way, and it is a good foreshadowing for the rest of the episode, where Jolly and Jelly’s history are shown for the first time.
5) The Criminals’ Court – M
Some films made last decade get old the year after they’re made, but thankfully, there are films from years and years ago that hold up even today. Casablanca may have been made in 1942 but is still considered a classic in 2013, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is eerie even after Tim Burton ripped it off a zillion times and M works as well as it did in 1931.
Directed by Fritz Lang, M tells the story of child-killer Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre (greatly helping his career in the process), noticeable by the M on his coat and his way of whistling ‘In The Hall of the Mountain King’. Not only is he wanted by the law, who are hunting him by way of clues left in letters he writes to newspapers, but by other criminals as well, due to them being hindered by the investigations.
The criminals manage to catch Beckert, with a little help from the same balloon salesman he used to capture children, and they put him on trial. I said before that trial scenes can be effective due to the formality of a courtroom, but Beckert’s trial is effective because it is set in such a murky, ugly place. Someone as miserably despicable as a child-killer deserves to rot in the dankest dungeon imaginable, so it makes sense that they should have their trial there too. A more orthodox trial scene can be made uncomfortable by the stern, judgmental faces of law-abiding citizens, but the stern faces here are those of several flatcap-donning lowlifes; Beckert is pathetic even by their standards.
The criminals who have put Beckert on trial want to kill him, and it’s not hard to see why, even as he begs for his life. Him crying ‘I can’t help myself’ isn’t going to make one forget he murdered innocent children, and only make the criminals more eager to kill him (I wonder if the criminals hold the same view of the mentally ill as Jim Norton does). Beckert poo-pooing his jury for cheating at cards is going to be taken with a grain of salt when he lured a little girl out with a balloon and killed her.
Beckert is given a more orthodox trial at the end, and yet one can see why the criminals thought he deserved their version of justice.
4) Pluto’s Judgement Day
Everyone accuses Disney of being lovey-dovey and cutesy so much that it’s easy to forget they have a darker side to their cartoons, even one including the safe Mickey Mouse and his loveable dog Pluto.
Mickey Mouse is tired of Pluto always picking on cats, and tells him, ‘You’re gonna have a lot to answer for on your Judgement Day.’ And if there’s a better way to train a dog than by threatening him with divine punishment, I’d like to hear it. Obedience schools should be required to have a lake of fire. Sure enough, Pluto dreams he is put on trial by an array of demonic-looking moggies. Like the trial of Hans Beckert, Pluto’s trial is held in a dank, dirty location as opposed to a clean courtroom, judged by filthy creatures. Beckert, however, was a worm, while Pluto was simply doing what dogs do, so this trial does seem a little much. Then again, the trial does showcase little kittens who met their end due to Pluto chasing them.
Several cartoons from the 1930’s do tend to feel strange in this day and age, and this is no exception. While the cartoon is set in a gloomy cave and the prosecutor is implied to be Satan, there is still a touch of the classic Disney whimsy, with rhyme and Pluto shrinking, but that only makes the dark elements of the cartoon stand out all the more; one of Pluto’s victims is even called ‘Uncle Tom’ and is drawn to resemble the Stowe character. A jury room having a revolving door is sinister and amusing at the same time.
3) The Knave’s Trial – Alice in Wonderland
What list of surreal trials would be complete without mentioning one of the most famous trials in literature from one of the most surreal books in literature? A story about a trial ending with death is told in the early chapters of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but the climax of the story takes place in the Queen of Hearts’ court, with an unofficial continuation of a certain nursery rhyme. Putting childish characters and talking animals into something as mature and orderly as a trial is strange enough, but Wonderland trials are not like our own.
A nonsense poem is considered evidence and sentence comes before verdict. It is never really proven whether or not the Knave is guilty, with the witnesses being the Hatter, trying to convince the court he didn’t steal the hat he wears, and the Duchess’ cook, talking about tarts in general more than the ones that have been stolen. (Wonderland law gets even stranger in Through the Looking Glass, where the Hatter is put in jail before he even commits a crime). It’s no wonder Alice tires of the arbitrary rules set and ends her dream by dismissing the court as ‘a pack of cards’.
It is very hard to adapt Alice for the film, with the book being based on wordplay and conversations, but most film versions add some visual unreality to complement the confusing logic of Wonderland’s residents, as can be seen in some film versions of the famous trial scene. Disney’s version of the scene was not a normal trial scene to be sure, but it focussed more on cartoon zaniness than actual confusion. Jonathan Miller’s version of the scene for his 1966 adaptation, however, made the trial unreal by making it seem real. The bizarre rules and testimonies from the book are still in place, but the courtroom looks for all the world like a regular Victorian court, and all the animals have been made into humans. Thus said rules and testimonies, and moments like Alice’s reflection acting independently, feel more out-of-place.
And then we have Jan Svankmajer’s version, which is, well, see for yourself:
2) The Trial – Pink Floyd’s The Wall
The Wall was a movie full of surreal imagery and it gets no more surreal than at the climatic trial scene. It’s the trial from Alice ramped up to eleven.
The movie, using the music of Pink Floyd more than actual dialogue, revolves around Pink, a messed-up rock musician. His father died in the war, he was mocked for writing poetry in class and his wife had an affair, so as you can see, he has problems, and a severe lack of maturity. Thus, he builds himself a wall in his mind, and imagines himself to be a dictator. His mental state is reflected through a series of animations, which include such lovely images like a phallic flower being devoured by one that resembles a vagina and policemen bashing people’s heads in bloody.
At the end of the film, Pink is so horrified by what he has become that he imagines himself on trial. This trial is supposed to be him breaking out of his shell, but is the perfect reflection of what we’ve seen of him so far. Throughout the film, he sees law enforcement as being fascist and stifling, so his trial is lit like a stage show, has the prosecutor adjusting his tie in front of a flashy mirror and has the judge being a gigantic anus. It’s an extremely fitting finale for the film; all the people of Pink’s past – his schoolmaster, wife and mother – all come up to say their piece, and they all make Pink realise he’s “crazy, toys in the attic”. With the wall Pink has built, it’s going to take a lot to demolish it, and something as warped as this trial is just the thing.
Of course, the animation is utterly trippy and fucked-up, but in a good way. The prosecutor is a hideous goblin-like creature that shoves its face right into the screen, thr schoolmaster is a puppet that turns into one of the hammers used to represent war, and Pink’s wife is a scorpion that turns into a fiery-haired harpy. As grotesque and disgusting as the trial gets, it is so well-animated and vibrant that you can’t help but watch.
1) The Trial – Franz Kafka
Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested. That’s what you have to love about Franz Kafka: he knew how to start things off with a bang. Guy wakes up to find he’s a cockroach. Guy wakes up to find out he’s being put on trial for an unknown crime. Starting the story off this way makes the arrest seem more sudden and shocking; being arrested is especially terrifying when it’s done out of the blue.
Like the trial from Alice in Wonderland, the titular trial here mixes the real with the unreal. Josef K may be under arrest, but he is still allowed to go to work. Even then, there still exists the sense that things aren’t going to be the same for him – the arrest did interrupt his morning routine, after all. Like the Knave was never really found guilty, Josef’s crime was never really fully identified. Pink’s trial was set up like a stage show, and Josef’s trial also feels like a farce – he denies being a ‘house painter’ and everyone laughs.
Even when court is not in session does the trial and the unknown crime loom over Josef, now that, as Kafka puts it, ‘he had to remember every tiny action and event from the whole of his life, looking at them from all sides and checking and reconsidering them’. He is made to feel like an outsider in this world with its strict government, reflected by how he’s mostly referred to solely as ‘K’ and how no-one seems to pay him any attention when he first enters the courtroom. The danger of losing the trial gnaws at K and the only way to stop this legal process is for him to die.
The confusing and bewildering nature of Kafka’s tale is brought to life greatly by Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation, which Welles himself considers his greatest film.
Like Kafka’s novel, the moody and confounding atmosphere is made apparent from the start, with gloomy pin screen illustrations making up the film’s prologue and Welles narrating with his mellifluously dark tone, stating ‘This story is said to have the logic of a dream…or a nightmare’. He definitely shows this in the film, with the eerie sounds of ‘Adagio in G’ acting as background music – either that or unnerving sound effects like the creaking of Mrs. Burstner’s trunk as it is pulled across an almost-empty beach. K still feels like an outsider to this confusing world and its firm government – he runs through tunnels filled with screaming children, he walks among workers clacking away at their typewriters like robots, and Welle’s beautiful monotony doesn’t make him feel any more comfortable.