Dir/scr: Rodney Ascher. US. 2014. 90mins
As with his fascinating inquiry into the conspiracy theories hidden inside Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Rodney Ascher’s unique documentary The Nightmare dwells in the realm of people’s unreliable subjectivities. The film surveys eight people suffering from what is likely a diagnosable condition called “sleep paralysis.” But rather than offer medical experts, psychoanalytic studies, or neurological research, The Nightmare plunges viewers into the spooky depths of its subjects’ upsetting bedtime experiences.
The Nightmare may briefly acknowledge that sleep paralysis may be caused by stress, but the movie is more interested in the occasional jump-out-of-your-seat shudder, and the (possibly) unexplainable things that go bump in the night.
With its genre trappings—complete with monster FX and shock cuts—The Nightmare should garner modest box-office art-house sales. But more likely, a larger audience of insomniacs and nightcrawlers alike will seek out the film in the dead of night on smaller screens.
One-third spine-tingler and two-thirds interview-driven nonfiction, The Nightmare begins with text on screen, stating the etymology of the word “nightmare”—which comes from Middle English words for “evil spirit,” or “incubus.”
Subsequently, the film unfolds in chapter-like sections, which tease out several reoccurring themes in the subject’s nightmares and how they attempt to deal with them. An introductory segment presents a range of symptoms that are common among a wide swath of people: they speak of feeling paralyzed or frozen as they drift off to sleep; then a sense of vibrations or an electrical charge; and then the nightmare itself arrives, which almost always features the arrival of dark and threatening shadowy figures creeping around their beds. As one woman testifies, “That’s when the Shadowman would come towards me.”
Ascher seems to be playing with the idea that these nocturnal visitors could be some unexplainable supernatural force, existing outside the realm of physiology or psychology. At least, that’s what many of these besieged interviewees believe, as they become increasingly agitated, aggrieved, and left unaided by the medical community.
One section elucidates the varying ways that people try to cope. A young man attempts to negotiate with his demons by leaving a TV turned on all night, which gets him a reprieve for about a year. But then he needs a second television, and another, and then another, to stave off the nightmares. “It will learn how to adapt to you,” he says. Another woman appears to have defeated her monsters with the help of Jesus Christ.
The characters’ desperation is real and terrifying, and Ascher gets inside their heads with effectively frightening recreations of their dream worlds, filled with scary black figures with red eyes, alien-like beings with gangly fingers, and other uncanny creatures. One evocative set-piece shows a man tormented by a mysterious phone call, and then, in eerie slow motion, rocked back and forth as his entire room shakes beneath his feet.
And although not necessarily integral to the subject matter, one lively chapter examines the nightmarer’s cinematic influences, in which horror movies filter their way into, or confirm, their worst fears. Terrific illustrative clips from 1980s and ‘90s flicks such as Nightmare On Elm Street, Jacob’s Ladder, the Christopher Walken film Communion, and even a single frame from Natural Born Killers offer evidence of the pervasive nature of sleep paralysis’s iconography.
But Ascher may be a better media analyst, or mythologist, than chronicler of the human condition. With The Nightmare’s foregrounding of the paranormal and refusal to acknowledge the psychological, the project sometimes feels disingenuous. Characters briefly allude to serious traumas from their past, but the film never explores them, which feels shortsighted, or even irresponsible.
But Ascher is no Freudian: The Nightmare may briefly acknowledge that sleep paralysis may be caused by stress, but the movie is more interested in the occasional jump-out-of-your-seat shudder, and the (possibly) unexplainable things that go bump in the night.
Production companies: Campfire Production, Zipper Brothers Films
International sales: Content Media, www.contentmediacorp.com
Producers: Ross Dinerstein, Glen Zipper
Executive producers: Jamie Carmichael, Kevin Iwashina, Ralph Zipper
Cinematography: Bridger Nielson
Editor: Rodney Ascher
Production designer: Ben Spiegelman, Evan Ross Murphy
Music: Jonathan Snipes, William Hutson