The Nightmare Director: Rodney Ascher
Music: Jonathan Snipes
Cinematography: Bridger Nielson Gravitas Ventures
Not Rated | 91 Minutes
Release Date: June 5, 2015
Directed by Rodney Ascher (Room 237), The Nightmare is a documentary-horror film that explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis through the eyes of eight different people.
Sleep paralysis is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. Those afflicted by sleep paralysis are seemingly trapped between the sleeping and waking worlds, unable to move but aware of their surroundings. Paralysis is often accompanied by disturbing hallucinations to which one is unable to react to.
The Nightmare takes its name from Henry Fuseli’s 1781 oil painting of the same name, a work of art that is considered to be the first depiction of sleep paralysis, perceived as a demonic visitation. The subjects of Ascher’s film see similar supernatural entities – ghostly “shadow men” who lurk at the foot of their beds.
Ascher’s film digs deep into each person’s experience with sleep paralysis through surreal, unsettling dramatizations. In his previous film, Room 237, the director took five people’s theories about The Shining and illustrated their far-fetched ideas using footage from Kubrick’s film. Here, the director has to recreate his subjects’ experiences with actors and special effects.
If Room 237 is about how we experience cinema as individuals, then The Nightmare is about how we each experience sleep, dreams, and the space between. Ascher isn’t really concerned with science behind the phenomenon – no medical professionals are interviewed on camera – but rather how this disorder affects the lives of those afflicted with it.
The result is a decidedly mixed bag. While the subject matter is compelling, Ascher’s low-budget dramatizations of his subjects’ nightmarish encounters feel like vignettes from Unsolved Mysteries. Actually, these scenarios would be vastly improved with Robert Stack’s chilling voice retelling the events.
Without context from sleep scientists, medical professionals, or psychologists, we’re left only to assume what causes these encounters. And when they eventually go away, we’re given little reason as to why. I guess Ascher feels like this elevates the film’s level of dread – the not knowing – but instead it makes for an incomplete film.
The Nightmare feels slight in some way – ineffectual as horror, wishy-washy as documentary. Like the horrific encounters those with sleep paralysis endure, The Nightmare exists somewhere between fact and fiction – between reality and what we perceive as real. If you happen to have sleep paralysis, or know someone who does, this docu-drama might be worth seeing. However, for those looking for a deeper, darker exploration of the human mind, you’re in for a rude awakening.
The Nightmare made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and went on to play SXSW, HotDocs, and The Stanley Film Festival. With distribution from Gravitas Ventures, The Nightmare creeps its way into theaters and onto VOD and iTunes on June 5th.