The Nightmare (2015 Documentary)

30 Oct

The most universal aspect of horror is its power to make us realize that evil might be a lot closer – and a lot more unpredictable – than we want to acknowledge.

Few films have tapped into that mysterious and terrorizing aspect of the great unknown. Alfred Hitchcock managed to do it with the masterful Psycho. In the 70’s, William Friedkin and Tobe Hooper did it with The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the late 90’s a group of students were able to tap into that primal fear on a fraction of the budget with The Blair Witch ProjectAnd now in 2015, director Rodney Ascher (The ABC’s of Death, Room 237) taps into that same terrorizing instinct (this time in documentary format) with The Nightmare. 

The documentary consists of eight interviews with people who suffer from a bizarre condition known as sleep paralysis. This night time phenomenon literally forces its victims to be lucid and awake while experiencing an unconscious nightmare – without the ability to speak or move a muscle.  Personal accounts have described a sort of demonic figure or unwelcome intruder entering the room and peering over the side of the bed, conveying thoughts and feelings of death, hell, and pain. It’s literally the stuff of nightmares, and so far modern science has shown no lasting treatment or cure.

Through a combination of Q&A sessions, dramatic recreations, surreal computer imagery and voiceover narration, Ascher creates a mesmerizing, want-to-close-your-eyes-but-can’t look into this rare but troubling phenomenon. Somehow The Nightmare summons that banal and instinctive fear of the unknown better than any other film this year – if not this decade – providing a conduit for audiences to conjure up their own demons and proving that the scariest things in life are indeed those things we create out of our own head.

As in the Stanley Kubrick tribute/conspiracy film Room 237, Ascher is most interested in hearing what other people have to say, and the personal retellings of sleep paralysis from those who have suffered through it make up the backbone for the film. Without much of a story or dramatic arc to follow, The Nightmare often ends up repeating itself more than once, though it avoids anything close to boredom by adding a new and visceral layer of terror with each person’s story. The Nightmare might seem repetitive on the surface, but always terrifying nevertheless while in the moment (and the film does an excellent job of making sure those moments of terror make a lasting impression on its audience).

Once you’re under it’s spell, The Nightmare becomes absolutely enchanting, horrifying, and captivating in equal measure. With superb attention to rhythm, the editing cuts in and out between recreations and talking heads relating first hand experiences. Ascher avoids most of the medical and scientific explanations behind sleep paralysis, instead focusing on each person’s accounts of terror. The end result is a numbing but deeply personal shock to the system, which gains tremendous authenticity due to the fact that we are watching a documentary and not a work of fiction. Though having a more solid narrative trajectory would have been welcome, The Nightmare adequately describes the horror of being paralyzed during your most fearful moment, doubting whether or not you will ever make it back to real life again.

Bottom Line: By digging straight through the psyche and exploiting each fearful moment to the limit, The Nightmare is an authentically terrorizing, hypnotic documentary – one that’s best experienced rather than watched. 

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe: Room 237 + Nightmare on Elm Street + a bad acid trip 

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3 Responses to “The Nightmare (2015 Documentary)”

  1. A. Hyder October 30, 2015 at 5:46 pm #

    Did you really enjoy Nightmare? I caught a showing at a local, independent cinema and was so disappointed with the structure. I didn’t think that it served any kind of purpose in regards to what a documentary should do. I was disappointed at the lack of investigation and conclusion and I t really just seemed like a collection of stories and nothing more. I had been waiting for its release for so long that perhaps i was expecting too much. Nonetheless I thought that it was just another documentary that played on visual effects and recreation rather than the real issues that were plaguing these people.

    • Cineman17 October 30, 2015 at 5:51 pm #

      Exactly. I think the director wanted to give us the real experience of sleep paralysis rather than try to come to any conclusions or solutions like a typical investigative documentary would have. The visceral impact of the film is what makes it so spooky.

      • A. Hyder October 30, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

        Yeah that’s a fair observation. I haven’t seen much of his other work but Room 237 looks like it could be something I’d give a go. Sometimes I think that I ruin things for myself before I even give them a chance; the downside of being particular.

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