by Rob Rector
Typically, when someone begins to tell me about a dream they had, I interrupt them and say, “Unless you are Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m not really all the interested in your dream.”
I don’t mean that in a (particularly) hurtful way, it’s just that usually dreams are like a detailed depiction of a stranger’s vacation — I’m sure it was super exciting for them at the time, but listening to it re-told in a straightforward narrative format can be excruciating.
Not so, for the participants of director Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare. The reason these tales are far more interesting than hearing how your best friend ended up battling life-size dung beetles as he scaled a rainbow using his newly formed prehensile tail are twofold.
First, the subjects of The Nightmare all suffer from “sleep paralysis,” a particularly horrifying (and common) condition that renders its sufferers immobile, but giving them the impression that they are fully awake and aware. Oh, and they are also usually slowly stalked by a faceless shadow figure entering their room and occasionally whispering threatening things.
The second reason The Nightmare leaves such a lasting impression are the carefully constructed visuals Ascher creates that scare the living shit out of the viewer.
The Nightmare is more interested in the scares than the science, so the film disposes of the usual lab-coated talking heads who point to brain x-rays and show us the source for such terrifying visions. Much like the director’s Room 237, the director is more interested in the words from the source of those who envision them.
Viewers sometimes struggled what to make of Room 237, labeling it a documentary on The Shining, which it is not. It’s more of a soapbox for a gaggle of obsessive film nerds (who may have seen the film one too many times) to create their own meaning of the film. It’s a fascinating film when viewed from that perspective, filled with exhaustively detailed clips from The Shining and other films both within and outside the Kubrick oeuvre.
With The Nightmare, Ascher stages the visions viewed by his eight subjects. Each of them recount their horrific slumber as they fade off into a world filled with impending dread and the presence of a strange being approaching them from which they are unable to escape. Just hearing these people recount their hallucinatory hell is tense enough, but the director’s slow-panning-camera re-enactments make them all the more chilling.
The fact that there is a void of scientific explanation does not detract from The Nightmare, in fact, it only escalates their tales, oftentimes leaving us feeling as helpless as they do in the middle of the night. Like Room 237, The Nightmare is merely a platform from which his subjects can speak to their fears and their own personal logic as to why their restful evenings are replaced with dread and terror.
And Ascher’s slinky, spooky recreations of these events will undoubtedly leave many viewers with a nightmare or two of their own.