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“THE NIGHTMARE” (Movie Review)

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Rodney Ascher’s THE NIGHTMARE (in theaters and on VOD today from Gravitas Ventures) revisits the subjective-narrative documentary form he explored in his previous ROOM 237. In that film, without comment, we are whisked into a world of tinfoil-hat theories on the “real” meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING; in THE NIGHTMARE, the subject is sleep paralysis, a medical phenomenon in which the mind becomes awake, but the body is still strapped in the atonia of REM sleep.

The diagnosis is not new, and even before the medical establishment began to examine it, there is evidence that it may have produced visions that inspired themes and images in various art forms. Examples range from Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting “THE NIGHTMARE,” which depicts a goblin crouching on a woman’s chest, pinning her down (much like the atonic suffering sleep paralysis), to the black figures that haunt horror cinema. Told in a stylized way, with sets and recreations of the vivid, harrowing dreams, THE NIGHTMARE itself takes on the look of the genre films this disorder might inspire.

Documentaries, by their very nature, incorporate the concept of objective, nonfictional reality and the question of subjective filtering, regardless of how careful the filmmakers are in excising their own presences or providing balance. Every choice made—in editing, in subjects chosen for interviews and/or focus, in lighting—starts to affect that topic. And the question inevitably remains: whose story is it? Does it belong to the subjects themselves, to some authoritative experts or to the director? THE NIGHTMARE tells the story of haunted people from various walks of life, all solicited for this project by Ascher, all suffering from sleep paralysis—an affliction that, we learn, the director himself has been afflicted by.

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Their stories, presented without any additional question or commentary, depict encounters with alien visitors, ghosts and other visions, in both pre-waking and waking states. Since THE NIGHTMARE deals with horrific images its actual subjects have seen, without context or medical mediation, their visions are re-enacted in detail, as they tell their stories, through artificial, theatrical means. Here, Ascher’s documentary form utilizes techniques of narrative horror cinema to tell its tale, to great effect.

Ascher escalates his game with THE NIGHTMARE. The photography is surreal, with a bit of soft focus; the recreations are detailed in their artifice and filled with monstrous images. What is not addressed here—or in much of the research on the history of this condition—is why so many of its victims see the same imagery. Stories are just told. Yarns are spun. No mention, really, of going to doctors, or the medical establishment’s counterpoint to or explication of these visions of extraterrestrial abductions and nocturnal visits.

This style is probably better suited for those seeking an experience over enlightenment. While that may prove frustrating for some viewers, this approach provides a greater opportunity for empathy with the afflicted than an approach that simply plugged in some pat diagnosis. Part of the special pain of this condition is that for those who experience these dreams, they don’t feel like dreams at all: They are events that happened to them.

As a cinematic work, THE NIGHTMARE is beautiful to watch, with a curious choice in subject in that it is both highly personal and not frequently discussed openly. It does have its elements of hermetic conspiracy-thinking, much like ROOM 237, because when you’re trapped in your own feedback loop, things start to look like external paranormal phenomena like grey aliens and ghosts and not what they really are: being trapped in a subjective mind, which can see the massacre of Native Americans in red cans on shelves (as in THE SHINING). To the subjects of THE NIGHTMARE, the ghosts are haunting not just their dreams, but a state where they feel awake, and red-eyed spirits and dream demons are real.

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About the author
Heather Buckley

Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank’s Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley

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