In Rodney Ascher's fascinating documentary Room 237, a handful of movie buffs offered a number complex conspiracy theories about the hidden messages lurking within Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Most of these theories stuck me as textbook examples of “overthinking it,” but the film was nonetheless a rewarding examination of both The Shining's mysterious power and the way a work of art can affect us on a host of different levels. Ascher's sophomore outing is The Nightmare, which takes a similar approach to the diverse ways in which people suffering from sleep paralysis interpret the nature of their condition. It's remarkably gripping as a cinematic experience, but as a documentary, it often seems to wander into ethically shaky territory.
Sleep paralysis is a very real condition, of course, and a fairly horrible one at that. People who are affected by sleep paralysis often experience terrifying hallucinations, but they are unable to move, speak or respond in any way during these unsettling encounters. Ascher gathers a handful of real people who suffer from this condition, and asks them to describe the frightening things they've seen during sleep paralysis. As we hear their stories, Ascher offers visual recreations of these nightmares. The dark imagery he conjures up is often genuinely creepy stuff – well-crafted enough to make you wonder if Ascher will eventually just make a straight-up horror movie.
Eventually, we begin to realize that there are a number of common threads between the stories we're hearing. Multiple people offer accounts of a mysterious “shadow man,” and certain elements like demonic-sounding voices uttering incomprehensible words, glowing red eyes and sexual threats are often uniting factors in these tales. What varies more considerably is the way these people respond to these threats. One person believes that they are literally being transported to another dimension. Another person views it from a religious angle, and suggests that they are being attacked by the devil. One man claims that his sleep paralysis caused him to give up his atheism, as the vivid nature of his hallucinations convinced him that there must be some sort of supernatural force out there.
Ascher seems uninterested in debunking or challenging any of this, choosing to let the personal accounts (and interpretations) stand on their own and refusing to bring any physicians, psychologists or sleep paralysis experts into the mix to provide context for what we're hearing. I get why Ascher is excluding those people – allowing hard, cold facts into the mix would likely damage the film's effective atmosphere of terror and uncertainty – but still, the fact that the film refuses to respond to or refute any of the wild ideas thrown out strikes me as slightly irresponsible. If you suffer from sleep paralysis and believe that Satan is personally attacking you through your condition, there is nothing in the film that resists that idea.
Still, there's undeniably meaty material here, particularly when we start hearing testimonies about the way sleep paralysis has been depicted in pop culture. More than one person points to Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street as the perfect dramatization of the terror sleep paralysis brings, and other films like Jacob's Ladder and Natural Born Killers are noted for their eerily familiar imagery. One participant speaks in awe about the Christopher Walken film Communion, claiming that the creepy images the film offers felt as if they had been ripped directly from his dreams. Naturally, scary movies not only reflect our dreams, but feed them: some of the people who see A Nightmare on Elm Street proceed to experience hallucinations involving Freddy Krueger.
Is the film worth seeing? Probably, but I'd take everything with a spoonful of salt. As a horror film, the film works tremendously well, fully capturing the real-life terror of an awful condition. If it were just a traditional narrative horror feature, it would be a fairly easy recommendation: it's scary, well-crafted and unique. Even so, it's hard not to feel that Ascher is shirking his duties as a documentary filmmaker. He has no interest in bringing people closer to an understanding of sleep paralysis, but merely wishes to mine the depths of the condition for creepy imagery and sensational, conspiratorial ideas. The movie doesn't officially condemn or endorse anything the interviewees say, which basically the same approach Ascher took in Room 237. In this case, the silence is far more troubling and potentially dangerous. Good narrative filmmaking and good documentary filmmaking are often two very different things, and The Nightmare is ultimately a reflection of the small but significant divide between those two formats.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2015