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The Nightmare

D: Rodney Ascher / 91m

With: Kate Angus, Forrest Borie, Christopher Bleuze-Carolan, Ana Malagon, Stephen Paynter, Jeff Reed, Korinne Wilson, Connie Yom

For those who have never experienced it, sleep paralysis is truly the stuff of nightmares, a disturbing occurrence that can happen nightly to its sufferers, and which can lead them to hallucinating the appearance of strange “shadow men” who approach them menacingly. These “shadow men” aren’t real, but such is the strange reality that accompanies sleep paralysis, that while the sufferer is experiencing all this, they believe it all to be real, and these hallucinations can be terrifying.

Sleep paralysis is a recognised condition, and a fascinating subject, one that documentarian Rodney Ascher has decided to explore in his follow up to Room 237 (2012), his look at so-called hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Using the experiences of eight sufferers, Ascher adopts a combination of talking heads testimony, eerie recreations, and occasional medical research to examine a condition that affects roughly six per cent of people, and which could provide an explanation for such cultural memes as near death experiences and alien abduction.

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What soon becomes apparent from hearing each individual tale is how similar they all are, with their apparent waking paralysis, open bedroom doors, and shadowy shapes making their presence known while the “sleeper” can do nothing about it. It’s perhaps this inability to move coupled with the presence of a strange creature that can’t be fended off that makes it all the more terrifying. Most sufferers begin to experience these attacks while they’re a child, and for many they persist into adulthood. As these tales unfold, one thing becomes clear (as a title card declares): it’s a thing.

Of course, the reality of the person’s recollection is supported by Ascher’s decision to re-enact their nightmares, making the movie not just a documentary but a horror movie as well, a well-intentioned hybrid that works better in some cases than in others. Using darkness and light to surreal yet credible effect, Ascher takes each case on its own merit, and introduces the kind of horror iconography that we haven’t seen since the days of Freddy Krueger (who features at one point in the movie’s journey). The “shadowman” image is repeated throughout – with some details changing as and when necessary – and it’s this chilling imagery that seems to drive the nightmares, and prove consistent in its appearance across different cultures and time zones. As Ascher probes each sufferer’s experiences, the “shadowman” takes up ever greater importance, until by the movie’s end there’s no doubt that this figure is instrumental in how terrifying each nightmare becomes.

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But while Ascher’s decision to re-enact these nightmares gives the movie some bite, and stops it from being just a bunch of talking heads expounding on theories of good and evil and supernatural design, what it doesn’t do is answer the one question that should be on every viewer’s mind: why these people in particular? They’re all regular people, leading regular lives, but while there’s evidence to support the theory that it’s all down to genetic inheritance, Ascher seems more concerned with the nightmares themselves than if sleep paralysis can be overcome and a sufferer cured of their afflcition. With so many recreations clogging up the movie’s run-time, Ascher makes the mistake of assuming that every recreation will be interesting to the viewer.

Unfortuantely, it’s this repetition that bogs down the movie once all eight sufferers have introduced themselves to the viewer. With the similarities between nightmares established early on, and with little recourse but to keep repeating the same ideas that keep coming up, Ascher’s movie soon runs out of steam. Part of the problem is that a proven, workable cure hasn’t been discovered yet – one sufferer uses televisions as a means of putting off the inevitable – and another is that there’s no mystery here; as mentioned above and in the movie, it’s a thing. And while there are plenty of reasons why this happens to people, and plenty of theory work out there, The Nightmare isn’t interested in examining any of it too closely. This leads to one of the sufferers believing there to be a supernatural element to her nightmares, a belief that has no basis in fact, and which goes unchallenged by Ascher. In fact, Ascher makes very few attempts to challenge any of the assertions of his interviewees, and their concerns and interpretations of their dreams are generally accepted for what they are.

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But while Ascher the interviewer forgets to provide some balance, Ascher the canny director knows that his movie will stand or fall on the quality of the re-enactments, and here he gets it right most of the time, using a variety of visual techniques to illustrate the panic and fear that envelops each sufferer, and the causes of that panic and fear. There are some genuinely chilling moments, even one or two jump scares, as each tale is told, and while some of the imagery he adopts has been seen before in a variety of horror movies from the last ten years, Ascher still manages to invest them with the kind of frisson that jangles the nerves. But then he sabotages the effect of these scenes by showing how some of them are set up by his own crew, a device that takes the viewer out of the moment and unfairly reminds them that none of this is actually real, even if the eight subjects chosen really believe their experiences are real.

By the movie’s end, some viewers will be wondering if the topic of sleep paralysis could have been examined in a better way. Ascher appears to have set out to make a documentary that examines the condition in such a way that any conclusions are avoided, and the movie suffers as a result. By not probing enough into both the condition and its sufferers’ experiences, The Nightmare ends up skimming the surface of a very intriguing phenomenon.

Rating: 5/10 – uneven and lacking a cohesive approach, The Nightmare never really decides what kind of documentary it wants to be, and misses out entirely on being the go-to movie on the subject; some arresting imagery aside, Ascher’s take on sleep paralysis and what it means to be a sufferer gets lost amidst all the appearances by “shadow men” and the director’s decision to refrain from explaining anything in any depth.