Directed by: Rodney Ascher.
Rodney Ascher’s last film, Room 237, was a brilliant documentary about a number of people obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That film plunges us into their minds – as the entire film is just them talking over clips from the movie, and contains perspective outside the people who are describing what they believe The Shining is “really” about. Some (including Stephen King, and many associated with Kubrick) seem to have misunderstood the film – as Ascher wasn’t advocating any of the crazy theories on display, but instead was making a movie about the obsession the viewers have with The Shining – and the dangers of overanalyzing something.
His new documentary, The Nightmare, tries something similar. This is a documentary about “sleep paralysis”, a condition where people awake paralyzed in their bed. To make matters worse, they experience visions – surprisingly consistent – of dark, shadowy figures who, according to those interviewed – may just scare them, although one woman says she was raped one of these shadowy figures. Ascher interviews several people who suffer from the illness – shooting them at often odd angles, and then recreating the nightmarish visions they had. Once again, Ascher doesn’t provide any outside narration in the film – no doctors explaining the condition. Just several of sufferers themselves, telling their stories. What you make of them is up to you.
If nothing else, The Nightmare proves that Ascher could direct a great horror movie if he wanted to. The recreations of the nightmarish visions the subjects of the documentary have are its best part – atmospheric and scary. They brought to mind last year’s brilliant The Babadook – which isn’t a bad thing. Even the interviews themselves help to create the atmosphere of the movie. Ascher doesn’t shoot them in standard documentary style – instead using oft-kilter angles and strange camera placement. Ascher isn’t interested in making a typical documentary with The Nightmare – and at its best he succeeds. What Ascher – who has suffered from sleep paralysis himself – really wants to do, is place the audience in the headspace of the people who suffer from this – to make them realize how terrifying it really can be. In that, he succeeds.
Yet, in other areas, The Nightmare doesn’t really work that well at all. For one things, the film is awfully repetitive – as not only do the individual’s visions often repeat themselves, they are very similar to everyone else’s visions as well. For another, pretty much everyone in the documentary dismisses all possibility that the condition is psychological – or at least not purely so – and talk about something larger. Yes, I know that providing some expert narration on what we know about this condition goes against Ascher`s style – but in this, I really think it could have helped. By the end of The Nightmare, I feel I know a lot about what it’s like to suffer from sleep paralysis, but no idea what actually causes it – or really, what it is.
Room 237 was a great doc, and The Nightmare is not – yet it still clearly shows why Ascher is one of the documentary filmmaker working right know to keep an eye on. He is an interesting documentary filmmaker – one of the few who really does think of style as much as content – and he has an interesting strategy, of placing the audience in the headspace of someone they really do not want to be inside. The Nightmare is a passable doc – not much more – but it’s been made in a style that makes up for its shortcomings.