Just as Rodney Ascher’s brilliant first film Room 237 was a portrait of obsession, so is his second, The Nightmare. But whereas his debut focussed on people endlessly trying to understand a film – namely Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – the object of attention and analysis in The Nightmare is something much less concrete. On the surface, the documentary explores sleep paralysis, a condition wherein people see horrendous visions while falling asleep, and, unable to move, often feel as though they have died. But while sleep paralysis is the starting point, the film ends up exploring territory that, according to one of the interview subjects, comes to resemble the divine. As the film gets stranger, and the subjects get more and more obsessed, the real world comes to fade away, and Ascher fully submerges himself into the surreal.
The film heavily features reconstructions, allowing Ascher to show off the dramatic chops he first gave a hint of in his ABCS of Death 2 segment, “Q Is For Questionnaire.” Rather than punctuating the piece with some Errol Morris-esque close ups, Ascher goes hell for leather, reconstructing lengthy set pieces and casting actors in the parts of the interview subjects. This is the element of the film most ripe for failure: after all, there is nothing less scary than being told about somebody else’s nightmare, and often the most terrifying part of a vision is the part you can never properly explain. But it is a testament to Ascher’s unique skills as a director that he injects the proceedings with a very real sense of dread.
The effects work throughout is admirably low budget, but in a way that feeds into the chilling, off-beat horror of the characters. There is a kind of artificiality to the visions – particularly to the two ‘aliens’ made of television static who began visiting one of the unfortunate interview subjects when he was just a child – that actually makes them more terrifying. They are wholly unnatural in every conceivable way, and the crudely drawn smiles that brand leering faces become increasingly terrifying every time they appear.
As with Room 237 there is a vein of morbid humour running through the proceedings, and some of the interview subjects are clearly aware that elements of their stories sound ridiculous. But The Nightmare is also resolutely, undeniably chilling. A moment where one of the interview subjects dons a homemade mask he based on his surreal tormentors sears itself into the imagination, and has the kind of insidious power that can make the hairs on the back of your neck truly stand up on end.
By the time the documentary is over, its subjects have offered up every possible explanation for their affliction, with one woman memorably claiming that invoking the name of Jesus Christ is the only thing that saved her. They are trying desperately to use whatever tools they have to understand their fears, from logic, to religion, to science, and there is something instantly relatable about their desire to understand that which cannot be understood. Indeed, it is in this way that the film truly shines. All things considered, The Nightmare is ultimately a very tender, very human portrait of fear and how we face it.