Rodney Ascher is more interested in how people think and feel than he is in the ostensible subject matter of his documentaries. This tripped up a lot of folks with Room 237 - people went in expecting an exploration of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and were met instead with two hours of fruitcakes talking about their bizarre theories of the film. But for those who were tuned in to what Room 237 was doing the film was a joyful look at how we experience movies as individuals, the ways that we filter them through our own weird perceptions.
The Nightmare is more straightforward than that - it is about sleep paralysis and the people who suffer the most extreme versions of this disorder - but it’s still not interested in the bigger picture. There are no medical professionals interviewed on camera; the closest the movie gets to being scientific is a glimpse at the Wikipedia page for the ailment. What Ascher is after here isn’t the truth of sleep paralysis as medical phenomenon but rather as a personal phenomenon - how it manifests to these eight sufferers.
How it manifests is absolutely frightening; The Nightmare recreates the hypnagogic hallucinations that these people experience and in doing so becomes scarier than most horror movies I’ve seen. Terrifying shadowmen, spectral cats, sudden spiders and menacing spirits appear, hover, threaten and at one point even bloodily destroy the testicles of sleepers. I jumped, cowered and squirmed at red eyed demons and other malevolent monsters that haunt sufferers.
There are medical explanations for what’s happening, but for these people the reality of their dreamstates are so tangible that they can’t quite believe the doctors. And for more than one of them the imagery and fear from the sleeping hours creeps into their waking lives, presenting them with confusing, supernatural visions. Ascher - who himself has experienced sleep paralysis (as have many, but few as extremely as these people) - has a lot of empathy for their individual experiences.
The film is stylishly made with lots of wry humor (at one point it shows us a YouTube video made by a sufferer who found solace through Christ, and we see Ascher’s mouse clicking away an ad); while Room 237 was an assemblage of film clips The Nightmare proves that Ascher has a full, natural director’s eye. There are sequences in this film that put to shame anything I’ve seen in mainstream horror in the last decade, from the beauty of the composition to the immensity of the tension and fear. If Ascher were to jump into narrative filmmaking we should all get very, very excited.
If there’s a fault with The Nightmare it’s that there are too many subjects; the film follows eight people when perhaps six would have sufficed and only four have truly striking, extraordinary stories. If there’s a hidden strength in The Nightmare it’s the way Ascher connects dreaming - and especially the shockingly universal imagery of sleep paralysis demons - to everything from alien abductions to Hollywood movies. He’s showing us the way that our dreams, supposedly unreal, impact our lives and culture all the time. And the way that they impact some people far more horrifically than others.
At one point in the film a sufferer says he only started experiencing sleep paralysis after his girlfriend told him about her experiences. Some people think that sleep paralysis can be spread just by talking about it. If that's true, Rodney Ascher is one irresponsible filmmaker. But even if it's not true, The Nightmare is guaranteed to produce plenty of real nightmares for audiences caught in its blood-red gaze.