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Review: The Nightmare (Sundance 2015)

The Nightmare (Sundance 2015)
01.28.2015by: Chris Bumbray
4 10

PLOT: A documentary focusing on the phenomenon of sleep paralysis as experienced by eight strangers.

REVIEW: Rodney Ascher's THE NIGHTMARE should have been a slam­dunk. His SHINING doc, ROOM 237, was unsettling even if most if the interpretations put across in the film were nonsense. It had so much style that it didn't really matter if most of the participants sounded crazy. THE NIGHTMARE goes further by exploring sleep paralysis (aka nightmares), something I'm sure everyone can relate to. How often have you woken up in a cold sweat from a dream that truly terrified you but you were helpless to escape from? Nightmares can be terribly unsettling, and it's definitely a fact that many people have a higher sensitivity to them and suffer from them constantly. But the question is why?

Sadly, that's a question Ascher doesn't seen remotely interested in answering or even exploring. Rather, THE NIGHTMARE is just the recollections of eight people from different backgrounds, all of whom seem vulnerable, and many of whom seem mentally ill, with their stories arguably being exploited by Ascher. The experiences are tied together thinly by a figure many of them claim to be seeing in the dreams, a so­called “shadow man”. Possibly the only interesting part of the film is when the participants remember seeing movies that closely paralleled their nightmares (including A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and COMMUNION).It's briefly mentioned that these figures are relatively common in dreams, which is something Ascher could have followed up on with some scientific sources, or academics with real insight into the condition.

Alas, that never happens. Instead, Ascher just has the people talk and talk about their dreams, cutting to the occasional recreation, some of which are admittedly unsettling. Yet, the subjects seem extremely unreliable, and the idea of there being a psychological root to their problems seems to be shirked off in favor of the oft­cited notion that these are demonic or otherworldly figures (probably the only interesting thing is when one person hypothesizes that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are actually suffering from sleep paralysis). As demonstrated in ROOM 237, Ascher has a strong visual sense which redeems the film somewhat, and he would probably ace a narrative film. The musical score is also extremely effective. But, the movie's technical sophistication does not make up for how bizarrely uninteresting it is given the subject matter.

Granted, the people interviewed here seem to be troubled, and there's very little doubt that the experiences they're describing are actually happening. But Ascher could have gone so much deeper and tried to explain why. Instead, THE NIGHTMARE is clearly meant to be a kind of pseudo-horror film rather than a documentary, giving this a rather schlocky vibe as opposed to the sophisticated ROOM 237. This is really a missed opportunity and a weak second feature from Ascher, who clearly has talent but has taken an interesting premise and turned it into something that feels like it will only play to the most gullible audience members.

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