After Room 237, the delightful documentary that explores some pretty crazy theories on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning, Rodney Ascher returns with The Nightmare. The doco explores the condition known as sleep paralysis, something I never really knew about, and, unfortunately, still don’t.
The Nightmare is a stylised and pop-cultured documentary. It opens with an oxford dictionary definition of the word ‘nightmare’ and uses the same gothic font to break up the film’s sub sections. As for references, it uses Henry Fuseli’s 1781 oil painting The Nightmare, depicting a woman sleeping in a dream-like way with a demon watching over her, and snippets of films such A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jacob’s Ladder, Natural Born Killers and Insidious to signpost reoccurring themes and imagery of the condition itself. Although these are enjoyable and helps to contextualise sleep paralysis, it becomes a catch-22 when you take into account this reproduced imagery originated in early folklore and was imitated in popular culture. The presentation of similarities in experiences that the victims all seem to share comes across as a conspiracy theories, and it simply doesn’t help that the imagery already exists in our popular sub-conscious.
The documentary’s eight subjects (split equally in gender), with Ascher suggesting he suffers from the same condition, recount their experiences. An electric shock plagues the body, they cannot move, and a shadow figure towers over their bed. Sometimes it’s even a man with a hat. I’m not denying these experiences are in fact real, but this is about their stories reaching out and trying to convince you. Nothing else. No scientific or psychological evidence. Like Room 237, some of these scenarios seem legit and some don’t. But, ultimately, whether intentional or not, these subjects have an us-against-them attitude, really playing it up; they’re all alone here, but seem to really like it that way.
When one poor subject reveals that even his mother doesn’t understand the pain he gets from paralysis and treats it like any other common nightmare; you would think his mum has his back, right? There are some horrific situations and experiences these subjects have gone through, and still do. Ascher though, doesn’t demonstrate his sympathy or what he wishes the audience to take from this, especially with the re-enacted footage, which is sometimes hysterical and sometimes frightening, but mostly humorous. It doesn’t bode well when you get to the point where you say, ‘Should I be laughing?’ Then there’s the way the camera pans down to the subject’s clothes. It seems more interested in showing the viewer some kind of telepathic prejudice or victim bashing. Since the subject likes to dress as a ‘goth’, perhaps then it’s more of a reason you would expect these nightmares to occur?
The Nightmare withholds personal details or any conclusive connection as to why these subjects are having these experiences. If you analyse the subject’s childhood, which the documentary could have, it may have provided insight that the paralysis had been triggered from a previous traumatic experience. One of the subjects concludes that the disorder was due to being in a dark place. Now it’s gone since she is happily married. In this moment, The Nightmare is sincere and factual. She connects paralysis as a way of needing to deal with personal grief. Bingo. The problem is solved.
You get that feeling that Ascher doesn’t want the viewer to form an opinion. He uses one of his subjects to end the documentary almost as the spokesperson for the condition. This guy likes to play up his 15 minutes of fame and says ‘awesome’ a lot, making it really hard to take him. It’s but one more example of the inclusions and creative choices that hinder whatever it is that Ascher is trying to say. Time and time again, the point just goes astray.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10