Originally published on June 9, 2015. The Nightmare is now available on Amazon Prime’s instant streaming service.
Overview: A combination of interviews and re-enactments regarding the experience of different individuals who suffer from sleep paralysis. Gravitas Ventures; Not Rated; 2015; 91 minutes.
A Developing Form: There’s a moment in Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s first documentary that covers the elaborately insane interpretative readings from obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where I had to step back and shake myself back to reality. Left alone with the preposterous, but uninterrupted, explanations with no measured string of factual information with which to weigh the absurdity, I fell under a spell and began to believe that the borderline insane theories might actually be true. It’s a simple but seldom used trick. In that film, Ascher left the viewer alone with his subjects. Ascher’s voice is never heard and there is no expert presence or perspective from anyone close to Kubrick. This calculation allows the audience to sit in a first person perspective within an untrustworthy mind, a perspective that becomes immeasurably more trustworthy without someone to interrupt full immersion. Ascher unleashes the exact same technique in his sophomore feature The Nightmare, but because the point of investigation explores a subject much more universally familiar, the effect is felt ten fold.
True Horror: Because there is no concrete representation or scientific explanation, the testimony of the sleep paralysis sufferers in The Nightmare is somewhat intoxicating. The retrospective fear is transferable. It is apparent that all of the talking heads are strangers to one another, and, because of this, when their individual accounts begin to exhibit distinct similarities, traditionally-informed movie minds will build a deceptive narrative. The idea of inter-dimensional existences is called into play, the sort of stuff of H.P. Lovecraft’s or Stephen King’s most horrific designs, and frightening, literal re-enactments fuel that reading. When it starts to feel like these real-life interview subjects are all haunted and hunted by the same evil antagonist, or antagonists, the stakes feel higher, more sinister, imbued with the sort of menace that narrative horror movies could only hope for. In short, the in-movie experience of The Nightmare is absolutely fucking terrifying.
Horrific Truth: Of course, when it’s all said and done, more logical minds will settle and view this conflict in rational terms, but that just means that Ascher’s narrative deception becomes absolutely imperative to understanding sleep paralysis. Ascher might have discovered the only way to truly convey the effect of this phenomena on its victims. All of these subjects have suffered this condition in ways that have altered their lives and their ability to negotiate reality. It’s worth noting that everyone who actually speaks in the film exhibits a clear and distinct level of intelligence. One interviewee discusses her transition from atheism to Christianity within a singular instance of making her way out of sleep paralysis. Another explains his belief that he is living two lives and proclaims his readiness to leave the one that you and I think of as real in an effort to figure out the other. Yet another, who seems to be the most well-adjusted of all the patients, describes in great detail his encounter with his sleep paralysis demons in a waking state. Ultimately, Ascher’s decision to include only the perspective of those who suffer from sleep paralysis paints the clearest picture of the suffering, rather than an academic investigation of the condition.
Overall: Even as fans enjoy an unprecedented stretch of quality, good horror films, The Nightmare is the downright scariest movie I’ve seen in years, both in its literal interpretation and in its suggestive exploration of the individual mind’s capacity for betrayal.