Movie Review—”The Nightmare”

October 5, 2015 at 12:47 pm Leave a comment

I’ve never suffered from sleep paralysis before, but I find the subject fascinating. When I question friends who’ve suffered from it, they’re quick to change the subject, as the memories of the experiences still affect them. Of course, this just raises my curiosity about the subject. What I find truly interesting is how many people experience the same thing when they go through sleep paralysis: pressure on their chest, inability to move or make any vocal sound (like scream), and the shadow people–dark human-like figures that enter the person’s room.

The premise of Rodney Ascher’s “The Nightmare” is a series of interviews with people who suffer from sleep paralysis. He gets them to describe their experiences and then does reenactments with actors on a set. This put me off initially, because this basically sounds like any cheesy paranormal-themed show where they have interviews with “victims” of haunting and such and then have actors do their best horror impression on a fake-looking set. But the thing about “The Nightmare” is that these reenactments, for the most part, work. Ascher shoots them effectively, like a real horror movie–he builds atmosphere and doesn’t rely too much on jump scares.

The interviews themselves focus solely on the interviewees’ experiences; there’s no delving into the scientific or medical reasons as to why sleep paralysis occurs, nor is there a look into the cultural impact (people accused of being possessed or some other supernatural reason). This is strictly from the point of view of these people who must endure countless sleepless nights lying in terror because they’re simply too afraid to sleep.

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The reenactments rely on the interviewees’ description–a narration, essentially–of what happens when they sleep. Asher uses traditional TV-style sets in place of real bedrooms, but the dim lighting masks much of the “fakeness” of the environments. He plays with shadows well, hiding the dark figures lurking in the shadows. Often Ascher uses doorways or windows to frame the shadow people, highlighting them against the darkness, before letting them slip into the room with the victims.

It’s very effective, in small doses.

The illusion begins to fall apart when the camera lingers too long on the shadow people, which allows the audience to see that they really are just people in a black full-bodied leotard. There are a few moments when one of these dark figures creep uncomfortably close to one of the victims, and the camera pushes just too close to their faces. It’s at this moment when you can easily see the stitching and texture of the fabric covering the shadow person’s face. Then is just looks silly–an actor hovering too close to to someone’s face, and the other actor putting on her best “I’m-too-scared-too-look” face.

Then there are instances when the “fakeness” is intentional. There’s one scene that shows one shadow person–actually I should specify that it’s the actor playing the shadow person–move from set to set, changing his costume before entering another room with another one of the victims. There are even shots where the studio lights above the sets are clearly visible. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this was, but I have to admit I found them visually interesting, though I’m glad Ascher kept these to a minimum.

“The Nightmare” is interesting in that it straddles that line between genres. It’s most definitely a documentary, but the reenactments are, at times, so effective that any one of those segments could be its own movie. It’s worth a look for horror fans tired of found-footage copycats and C-grade torture porn. Rodney Ascher and cinematographer Bridger Nielson find ways to keep the tension up even during typical floating head interviews, and I’d be interested in seeing them tackle the subject in a more conventionally-structured horror film.

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