Published Apr 29, 2015An invisible presence straddles a woman, helplessly pins to her bed. A red-eyed, shadowy beast snarls guttural warnings at a young man while his bedmates snooze blissfully beside him. An infant sits paralyzed in his crib as two shadowy figures — comprised entirely of TV static — stare down at him with blank-eyed grins.
These aren't scenes from a horror film, but rather the stories of people who suffer from sleep paralysis: a chronic condition where the afflicted experience frozen muscles, mute panic and nasty visual and aural hallucinations from their beds. In his disturbing new documentary The Nightmare, director Rodney Ascher interviews a variety of people who live with this condition; if that wasn't already scary enough, each of their distinct night terrors is re-created in inventive and vivid detail throughout the film.
Ascher is best known for Room 237, his unauthorized documentary about the conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick and The Shining. The Nightmare applies similar tactics, allowing the stories of participants to unfurl in their own words while a synth-y, anxiety-inducing soundtrack buzzes underneath. The re-enactments themselves are lovingly — and horribly — accurate, featuring actors being tormented by exact replicas of each interviewee's night visions, which run the gamut from shadowy, faceless beings to giant spider jump scares. Through these manufactured visions, Ascher has done something that I suspect is unprecedented: he's captured the surreal, highly mutable state between the waking world and sleep in a way that feels authentic and wholly disturbing.
As the movie progresses, it's interesting to see the commonalities between individual cases. Many people see the same type of shadowy figure, along with a man in a top hat bearing a strong resemblance to the titular character in last year's horror sleeper hit The Babadook. (And indeed, a lot of these tropes have made it into popular culture, with interviewees citing a shock of recognition when they witnessed similar visions in films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Insidious.) Some hallucinations go beyond the bedroom, entering the territory of lucid dreams: one man recalls having an entire phone conversation with a malevolent being while his apartment shakes around him, as in an earthquake.
The persistence of sleep paralysis begs the question: Why does it happen? And how does one possibly manage it? This is the part where the documentary is a little lacking; Ascher spends too much time on the participants' night terrors and not enough on the individual histories and possible traumas that could have influenced their experiences. Many of the interviewees say they sought help with medical professionals to no avail, and turned to their own methods of treatment, but even this portion feels glossed over. Curiously, Ascher spends a lot of time with one participant who claims she got rid of her pesky visions by repeatedly invoking the name of Jesus; we later learn she became a born-again Christian as a result. It sometimes feels like Ascher leans on his subjects' idiosyncrasies to buoy the film, and misses the opportunity to seek answers on a deeper level.
While it ultimately suffers from a case of style over substance, there's no question that The Nightmare is truly terrifying, and will be highly triggering to anyone who's ever known the feeling of being pinioned to your bed, held hostage by things that go bump in the night. (Zipper Bros Films)