The Nightmare (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Nightmare (2015)

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Eight subjects take turns telling, and reenacting, their experiences with sleep paralysis in Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare.

I'm here for something and it probably isn't good

"You can't put logic on liminal situations."

With barely ten minutes to go, Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare provides a thesis statement of sorts.  If we've been paying close enough attention to the juxtaposition of trained actors presenting the horrors of sleep paralysis with the sufferers describing their lives afterward, then the statement might come off as overkill.  But the important distinction is that this isn't said by Ascher, but by one of his subjects as she comes to the end of her journey and tries to relay what she's learned.  He can only offer the means for her to express her fear, frustration, and growing knowledge of her condition, but she's the one who has to make the journey.

Which brings us to the unusual and effective method of The Nightmare.  Ascher interviews each of his subjects, some in the same room and others over the internet, in the way that makes them most comfortable.  Like his earlier film, the beguiling Room 237, the method isn't about what realizations Ascher would like to come to about sleep paralysis but what those afflicted come to about themselves.  This might strike some as a flimsy or pseudoscientific way of looking at their affliction, and as the fairly cheesy recreations of their nightmares play on the screen it's unlikely to stir those already predisposed to looking at the film in such a shoddy light.  But to do so would be to deny the respect for the subjects Ascher has in allowing them the resources to take him on their journey, and ignore the power within The Nightmare.

The reconstructions are like something we'd see out of an ambitious Youtuber who has watched a few giallos and want to give it a try.  To Ascher's credit, some of them hit an eerie note in their design.  One early recreation is of a subject whose red night-light began to slowly take over the room, and as the room becomes drenched in red our eyes are drawn to the door which has always been there but only now is observable.  Light shifts to make the red presence seem as though it is on the other end, not streaming from the night-light like we once thought and much like the subject we wait for a terror whose inevitability and absence are equally terrifying.

Common fears, particularly castration, play prominently into the recreations.

Common fears, particularly castration, play prominently into the recreations.

But the strong contrasting colors and simple design are, again, at the service of the subjects instead of Asher and are only as good as the stories they are able to give.  They have the quality of many half-remembered dreams, as the walls are sparse, figures are sharply defined against even other darkness, and specific physical features stand out over all.  Specific details stand out, but overall they're not scary and more often than not kinda funny.  If The Nightmare's purpose was to scare via these images then it would be a failure, but when the subjects emerge from the nightmare to tell their stories the real fear sets in.

There are images common between the subjects and a recurring thread of stress and anxiety.  Stress sometimes reveals directly in their dialogue, like when describes his fear as totally debilitating because, "I'm just trying to breathe becauase I don't know what else to do."  But it's the little moments, those bits of cinematic magic unique to documentaries, which show how their very essence has been shaken because of the terror.  One moment is stunning precisely because of what isn't said, as a subject is trying to recall his experience and when he says, "I remember I had gone to sleep," he just stops frozen in the middle of the sentence and can't say anything.  His eyes well up, he turns his face as far away from the camera but his body won't let him turn any further, and he can't finish his sentence until he's as far away as his body will allow.

This is the horror of night terrors, being trapped in a moment where your body will only let you do so much and even though this man is in a safe space simply recalling the moment is enough to trigger a physical response.  We see many of the other subjects in this same grip of terror as they recount their experiences, some of them go to their books or quickly switch to a spiritual topic to get through their recollection while others refuse to deal with it at all (as one woman puts it, "I'm not in a place to want to listen to that kind of stuff anymore.")

The slow reveal of the mass of televisions is an effective look at the creeping influence of sleep paralysis.

The slow reveal of the mass of televisions is an effective look at the creeping influence of sleep paralysis.

The horror comes from our realization that even the recollection of these events may cause them to relapse.  All of the subjects are brave in their own way, because as we watch them struggle through their memories they sometimes have to physically force themselves to finish each thought.  Much like the lack of objects in the dream recreations highlights their time trapped in the terror, the way their real rooms are decorated speaks to their frame of mind.  One woman has a cute white teddy bear right on the front of her bed pillows, and it become easy to imagine her holding that bear in the hopes the nightmare will go away.  Another haunting detail has a man finding out he can sleep when he has a TV on - then that stops working.  So he gets another TV, and another, and another...until his room is a mess of light and white noise.  The only way to face the horror is with incomprehension for some, a symbol for others, but it never completely goes away.

Which makes some of Ascher's visual choices intriguing.  As we hear the stories we sometimes switch to images of neurons firing in the brain, so we're primed for a physiological answer which curiously never comes.  Sure, we dabble in some of the research that the subjects have done, but the scientific answers provided to date are of little comfort.  The message is clear, our nightmares may seem silly if we move them straight into the real world, but they're more real than any explanation science could provide.

My own experiences with night terrors and depression made the rare moments of touch hit me hard.  One man reaches down in the middle of a story to pet his cat briefly before he can move on, and we understand that the sensations which bring so much anguish in the night are healed by the right companion.  I hope Ascher continues making odd documentaries like this, because it's good to know others cry in the dark at the fear of the unknown.

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Tail - The NightmareThe Nightmare (2015)

Directed by Rodney Ascher.

Posted by Andrew

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