Director: Rodney Ascher
Writer: Rodney Ascher
Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein, Glen Zipper
Stars: Kate Angus, Forrest Borie, Christopher Bleuze-Carolan, Ana Malagon, Stephen Paynter, Jeff Reed, Korinne Wilson, Connie Yom
Eight interview subjects discuss the terrifying phenomenon of sleep paralysis, including shadow people encounters and out of body experiences.
Although light as helium on substantive informational value, the loony dissection of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” made “Room 237” (review here) intriguing on entertainment value alone. As crackpots and academics hypothesized moon landing mea culpas, imaginary cloud faces, and phallic props supposedly hiding in plain sight, filmmaker Rodney Ascher let conspiracy theories speak for themselves with a wink and a shrug regarding how seriously to take the puzzling proselytizing. Those not maddened by crazy conjecture could grade the film as amusing at worst and thought-provoking at best.
For his follow-up feature, Ascher moves into modestly more meaningful matters. “The Nightmare” is an exploratory primer on sleep paralysis, a very real nighttime phenomenon where the afflicted are frozen in a waking dream state while tormented by frightful visions, as told through the authentic experiences of interviewees while illustrated by dramatic recreations that could give Wes Craven nightmares. The documentary-thriller hybrid of nonfiction narrative accented by horror movie happenings caters particularly to open-minded genre film fans, although Asher’s hands-off helmsmanship results in a foggier focus not quite as consistently engaging this time around.
From Connie Y. in Costa Mesa, California to Stephen P. of Manchester, England, “The Nightmare” covers eight people in four states and two countries only to find that sleep paralysis experiences are redundantly similar enough that virtually identical content could be culled from a single apartment building in Anywhere, USA. Forrest R. of Los Angeles emerges quickly as fascinatingly funny comic relief while Chris C. of New York fills out the other fist in their one-two punch of most interesting interviewees. While these two men rightfully steal the spotlight, the unbalanced distribution of personality leaves the other six subjects fading into interchangeability after making at most one standout anecdote or contribution each.
These sleep paralysis sufferers are clearly haunted by trauma, with two of the eight subjects having been terrified enough to convert to Christianity while others are visibly shaken even while recounting experiences deep in their pasts. That terror has a challenging time transferring onscreen, however. Sleep paralysis is a largely passive experience, which equates to a movie with many moments spent looking at people lying in bed or staring at ceilings.
Yet Ascher possesses the intuition to know when the talking heads and voice-overs lag into needing an artificial assist. That’s when the cinematography of Bridger Nielson takes center stage with fictionalized segments of red-eyed shadow men stalking around bedrooms, casting sinister silhouettes of inhuman shapes and ominous fedoras. Also responsible for the looks of Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact” (review here) and “At the Devil’s Door” (review here), Nielson’s flair for visually melting haunting nightmares into suburban realities perfectly complements Asher’s carefully timed scare tactics. Working in tandem, full advantage is taken of the unsettling atmosphere while making a case that this team’s next project should dispense with documentary angles altogether and run straight at a full-on horror film.
Such segments are strong enough to qualify “The Nightmare” as an effective horror film, even if it lacks completely compelling content to be considered an insightful documentary. “The Nightmare” never fully veers off course, nor does it steer straight ahead with determined purpose either. Ascher appears content to let the direction list casually as interviewees determine the rhythm using stories of varying value.
While he doesn’t shape the narratives as much as a documentary director should to tell a singular story, Ascher does take firmer reins over their accompaniment. Whether leaving in tongue-slip gaffes to inject a laugh or opting to tell one subject’s story through still frames, Ascher plays loose with the rulebook in favor of style switch-ups to maintain momentum. Like the film as the whole, the disparate techniques meet with oscillating degrees of success and are not always fully thought through with purpose, e.g. weirdly staging one interview in a mirror while interviewer and interviewee sit in adjacent rooms.
This experimental approach to documentary filmmaking met with more success in “Room 237” because those interviewees could be left to their own devices to create content while simultaneously managing effectiveness though context. As alluded to earlier, the personalities of “The Nightmare” don’t have the same cache. So much of the material cycles through repeated instances of similar occurrences and Ascher is so determined to pep up the proceedings with unmotivated cinematic style that the direction sometimes shouts for unifying cohesion to tighten the theme together.
I personally have never experienced sleep paralysis, nor does the subject overly fascinate me. So while it is certainly worth noting that those more empathically in tune to the phenomenon may find the movie more magnetic, it also bears mentioning that “The Nightmare” neither piqued my interest level nor inspired me to dive deeper than its 90 minutes with a library trip or a Google search. Exceptional documentaries have that ability. This one does not.
In spite of it being a surface scratch, and a roundabout one at that, the scale still tips towards favorability. “The Nightmare” capitalizes so well on its mood of escalating tension through eerie music and on-point visuals that a waxing and waning interest level in the subjects and their stories has no choice but to sit in the second chair. And that sentiment holds true whether or not an individual viewer can relate to the material with an experience of his/her own.
Review Score: 65