Following his widely celebrated video essay Room 237, Rodney Ascher returns to the world of the occult with The Nightmare, a hybrid doc centering around eight interviewees speaking about their experiences with sleep paralysis, and an even stranger connection with shared dreamscapes. The phenomenon of sleep paralysis inflicts a strange state of being on its victim, causing them to be partially alert to their surroundings but unable to make any physical movements. Motivated by his own dealings with the disorder, Ascher implores each individual to contextualize their fears in full detail, from an early age that first spawned such grotesque visions, to their recent level of preoccupation and how they have learned to cope with it.
In contrast to the various speaking sections, the terrors described become realized through a series of recreations made in the same style as many 1980s horror films. It’s one thing to hear about shadowy figures entering your bedroom in the middle of the night; watching it transpire before your eyes is an entire other level of trauma. By subjecting the audience to these elaborately composed sequences, Ascher’s doc grows more frightening with each new installment, and in the process manages to out-scare most recent American horror films being released into multiplexes.
While a in-depth analysis of the psychological causes behind sleep paralysis could have granted an additional layer to these scenarios, this aspect is neglected outright. Rather than address the inciting factors of the ailment, the overwhelming effects on the physical and internal sense of self is the prime focus. This in turn works to a great result, as the most shock inducing aspect of the film is the notion that it’s a real, widespread disorder that could happen to anyone.
It is remarkable that the film is able to sustain its singular object of study across a ninety minute duration, though much of that can be attributed to how closely it is able to gets under one own skin. Just as well, it continues Ascher’s predisposition with telling strange, hard-to-believe stories, and granting them visual renderings that seek to form a close bond with the truth. The Nightmare may be an abnormal blending of horror and documentary aesthetics, though it is a masterful approach to a subject rarely covered in film, with the potential to become the most exemplary investigation on the matter.