Movie Review – The Nightmare (2015)

It begins just as you close your eyes to sleep. A vibration, like an electrical current, goes through your body. Then they come. Sometimes you feel their presence behind you. Sometimes you see them, their slender, shadowy forms returning your gaze. You try to scream but are speechless. You try to move but your limbs won’t respond to your silent commands.

This is a common experience in those who experience sleep paralysis, or so says the documentary The Nightmare (2015) directed by Rodney Ascher. Ascher interviews people who claim to experience the phenomena, allowing them to disclose their own personal views on the subject matter, and uses a horror pastiche to dramatize their terrifying experiences. This technique follows in the successful footsteps of shows like Unsolved Mysteries or the paranormal anthology television series A Haunting, where eyewitness accounts are dramatized. Some of what Ascher shows us is truly creepy, and the interviews are filmed in dim lighting as though the shadows are always encroaching.

Ascher’s previous horror-related documentary was the popular Room 237 (2012), where he interviewed and showcased various people’s perceived meanings and theories associated with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining (1980). His approach was similar in that film, putting an unbiased lens on people and allowing them to deliver their views. However, despite the generally favorable reviews I read for the film, I quickly grew impatient with it. For every interesting theory there were several others that were obvious rubbish. By not discerning between the wheat and chaff, what ideas might be valid are belittled and overshadowed by nonsense. It becomes the viewer’s duty to curate the material, and there isn’t enough in the film’s presentation to inspire me to do so.

The Nightmare suffers from the same fate, though because it deals with a diagnosable condition its refusal to consult or give voice to the scientific and medical community is ultimately irresponsible. Ascher allows people from different backgrounds to give their interpretations of the shadow men, and these range from demonic to scientifically feasible. However, he gives greater attention to the supernatural theories, giving indication that these shadow men are somehow real and tormenting their victims rather than archetypal constructs of a relatable human consciousness. As he did in Room 237, reasonable explanations are once again buried in the accounts of people whose judgements are clearly suspect – some stories just sound like disturbing lucid dreams – or people who may be suffering from significant psychological conditions. For instance, a great deal of time is devoted to one man’s recollections of static men, who he suggests are aliens, even though his experiences don’t really fit in the mold of sleep paralysis. The static men, also, unlike the shadow men, look like people in goofy costumes. Whatever tension is created in the reenactments is lost when we return to these stories, or else it is due to Ascher’s tendency to switch narrators so often that not enough time is allowed to build atmosphere.

I acknowledge that these images may be very frightening for those who have experienced them, but about half-way through The Nightmare I began looking idly at my phone. The film quickly became repetitive and the minutes dragged towards an unsure destination. For a documentary that deals with the fear of going to sleep, my wife had no problem nodding off and sleeping soundly beside me before the movie ended even though she’s generally sensitive to horror. Rather than wake her, as I usually do, I envied her and let her snooze. When she awoke, she wasn’t even interested in what she had missed. She asked me what I thought of it. I shrugged my tired shoulders and replied, “Eh.” We then went up to bed and slept deeply.

Grade: D