Our bodies can do a lot of weird things when we sleep. We dream, we can sleep walk, and we can literally scare ourselves to death. One thing that has always been fascinating though is sleep paralysis: where the body can literally keep us frozen despite being fully aware of what is going on. New documentarian Rodney Ascher felt there was a compelling story to tell in regards to this bizarre choice our bodies can make. In The Nightmare, Ascher does not give us a story but several to showcase how truly nightmarish it can be.
Instead of giving us a lecture on what makes sleep paralysis happen Ascher is more content giving us visual interpretation of the nightmares these people have. The film jumps from talking heads to actors recreating these moments which gives Ascher more breathing room to be creative. So get ready for nonstop moments of people in beds, pretending to be frozen in place, while actors covered in black slowly creep in front of them. This kind of structure allows Ascher to ratchet up the scares when it comes to things like the sound design or give us some unique camera angles. As someone who gets sleep paralysis from time to time, but not to such a terrible degree as these men and women, it becomes a wonder how any of them cope with such horrible visions.
Unfortunately the film starts to lose its draw after the first couple of retellings. There is no denying Ascher and his team took a lot of care into recreating these terrible visions. But the film moves at such a glacial place it starts to get boring once we see the same ‘shadow men’ and people starting wide eyed into the distance. In fact, it becomes apparent the human mind is not very creative when it comes to sleep paralysis. It feels like something out of a Stephen King novel where an omnipresent being hovers around all of these people. Apart from a few instances where someone’s nightmare goes off the rails the films becomes stagnant far too quickly.
There is no denying Rodney Ascher is a great, new voice for documentaries. With his previous film Room 237 and now The Nightmare he has a great sense of finding unique topics to cover. Unlike his last film though, there is not enough visual appeal to keep it going to the finish. Had this been an effort to make a short documentary, or in the very least cut down the number of participants, this could have had the recipe to be an effective combo of being a non-fiction horror film. As it is The Nightmare will probably be more effective seen in unrelated chunks online rather than its original intended form.