Rodney Ascher’s horror-documentary The Nightmare sounds like a fascinating watch on paper. An examination of the condition known as sleep paralysis, The Nightmare combines interviews with those who suffer from the condition with reconstructions of the horrific events they encounter in their dreams. During these episodes, the sufferers frequently find themselves pinned to their beds, unable to move or speak and often struggling to breathe, as they are menaced by a series of strange and troubling visions. Many sleep paralysis sufferers have reporting seeing images of the same shadow-men standing over or occasionally physically interacting with them. This link between strangers has led many to question whether these visions are more than just figments of troubled imaginations.
One thing it is important to understand from the outset, and which Ascher’s candid interviews with his subjects make absolutely clear, is that sleep paralysis is far, far worse than just a simple nightmare. It is to nightmares as migraines are to headaches, flu is to a cold and M.E. is to just being a bit tired. Several of the subjects here are clearly badly psychologically damaged by their experiences (although there is a chicken-and-egg question to consider too) but Ascher seems to have chosen his subjects carefully so as not to suggest that any one type of person is more prone to this condition. The interviewees have various reactions to and explanations for what they have experienced, from the clinically rational to the impulsively spiritual. The film does not judge any of these views as definitive and does not attempt to offer its own explanation. Instead it is more interested in the people on screen and their stories.
In many ways, The Nightmare’s detached approach is both its strength and its weakness. Ascher’s intimate interviews maintain a shadowy campfire atmosphere, building up a dark world from the words of its inhabitants alone. A voiceover providing a more balanced and authoritative overview of the subject would perhaps have created an awkward juxtaposition by introducing a patriarchal guiding figure at one remove from the people on screen. However, as the stories of night terrors become more repetitive, one longs for a clearer examination of the fascinating condition rather than just more personal accounts of what it feels like to experience sleep paralysis.
The Nightmare’s apparent trump card is its novel idea of interspersing the interviewees’ stories with dramatic reconstructions of the images they describe. An intriguing idea with some potential, the ultimate problem is that this gimmick serves largely to trivialise subject matter which has clearly been over-trivialised already. As the stories become more horrific, Ascher resorts more and more to cheap jump-scares, such as second long bursts of horrific noise or the sudden switch from the seemingly innocuous to the ominously threatening. While these reconstructions are often accurately recreating what is being described, it’s almost impossible not to feel a cheapening effect. By the end of the film, the ominous shadow men have been replaced by shrieking banshees.
Ascher’s film is a decent attempt at examining an interesting topic from a unique angle. Unfortunately, what is being touted as a horror-documentary does not totally succeed at being a particularly captivating example of either genre and one wishes that Ascher had fully committed himself to one or the other, preferably the latter given that his penchant for well-worn horror clichés does not convince of his talent for creating genuinely chilling imagery. Just look at that 80s b-movie DVD cover! The Nightmare does leave the viewer feeling a little creeped out but this is largely from the natural empathy one feels for those who are doomed to never get a moment’s rest, even in sleep.
The Nightmare is released on DVD by Altitude on 26th October 2015