Rodney Ascher impressed with his insightful Kubrick excavation Room 237, but for his next documentary The Nightmare, Ascher points the camera at 8 individuals haunted by the terrors of sleep paralysis.
These experiences are relayed to us with conversational intimacy and a brand of frankness that’s laudable and often funny. However, specific fears, especially those that appear in such specific circumstance (which most people can’t even begin to understand), don’t always translate to the viewer. One man’s recurrent visits from an obnoxious old guy and some static alien-like creatures seem silly against some of the other reports, reports that are perhaps a bit more unsettling by themselves. Like a Lovecraft short story collection, there’s only so much unimaginable terror you can handle, then your imagination stops taking the leap, and the visuals just seem ridiculous. But perhaps that’s Ascher’s point, he just wants to relay the concepts and the experience, our own fears have little to do with it. If anything it just raises more questions than it can perhaps answer.
For the most part, The Nightmare does relay the loss of control effectively, beautifully constructing the flashbacks. Often horrifying in its subtle POV camera work, The Nightmare pulls on Giallo inspirations to construct its unsettling world in sickly shades of blue and red. The domestic space becomes genuinely dreamlike, haunted by vague shadows then suddenly nightmarish with the interruption of some Jungian horror. The camera swings from set to set, the shadow men swap costumes, one person’s nightmare becomes the next person’s. It’s a great idea and relays the point effectively.
An eclectic selection of mediums; animations, film clips and (highly unsettling) illustrations, draw links to sleep-related fears across the globe, throughout cinema, and from periods throughout history, but disappointingly do little more. Ascher himself mentions his own experience with paralysis, briefly whilst interviewing, but never gives us the story or any really insightful examination like he did in Room 237. The documentary is resolute, but skimpy in its final notes, seeming unsure of how to frame the late-life stories of its subjects but knowing that this problem, even if dealt with, never really leaves. As an existential crisis disguised as a horror movie, The Nightmare is totally enjoyable and effortlessly intriguing, but as a layered examination, it falls short in its final act.
As a cultural phenomenon sleep paralysis is rifer than you may think and insufferably difficult to get rid of. More upsettingly, it seems easily passed on through word of mouth, insinuation, empathy, and suggestion. So, in effect, Ascher may have just created the most dangerous documentary ever made.
An unresolved documentary that has the balls to scare its audience shitless, but not the scope to look deeper at the why’s. Stylish, beautifully put together, and impressively slick, The Nightmare is still a fascinating look at how ideas play out in the vast human conscious.
Dir. Rodney Ascher