Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary "Room 237" combined numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the meaning of Stephen King’s "The Shining" into a compelling portrait of obsession. "The Nightmare," which explores the terrifying phenomena of sleep paralysis through the recollections of several people who suffer from it, takes a similar approach to unwrapping irrational fears. Cutting between various chilling anecdotes of sinister late night visions and horrifying reenactments, "The Nightmare" manages a tricky balance of visceral fright and sincere investigation. It’s a rare non-fiction achievement that earns the ability to freak you out.
An opening title card announces Ascher’s intent to reveal eight victims as they recall the forces that "wait for them in the darkness," which encapsulates the creepy, illustrative power of the ensuing 90-minutes. Unlike "Room 237," Ascher shows us his subjects as they discuss their nighttime encounters, though even in the talking head segments the eerie tone holds fast: Most of the interviews take place after hours, and some of them are in bedrooms, so that their stories never veer far from the realm where they’re experienced. Ascher drew on a number of resources, including online testimonials, to find a diverse set of voices from locations ranging from New York and Kentucky to the United Kingdom. The resulting impression from their overlapping recollections is the eerie sense of connectivity between their visions.
Ascher brings their accounts to life with an impressive amount of special effects work that frequently turns "The Nightmare" into a bonafide horror movie. It doesn’t take long to recognize the connective thread between several of his subjects, who frequently see variations on shadow figures slowly creeping towards them in the middle of the night. One menacing encounter includes the appearance of a demonic silhouette with bright red eyes and fangs growling awful threats as its victim lies helpless, unable to move. Another involves floating "blobs of black" threatening to assault their target. Several people recall seeing alien-creatures with bulbous skulls, and in one man’s case, they’re made of static. Not without its fair share of jump scares, the movie builds a tangible dread around each subject’s experiences with its ghastly visuals. "Fear creates a substance," says one sleep paralysis subject, and "The Nightmare" effectively brings it to life.
Ascher uses a chapter-based approach to digging through the variations of encounters and the way each of his interviewees rationalizes them. The turning point arrives with a chapter entitled "Figuring This Out," when lifelong sleep paralysis victims decide to take the initiative and get to the bottom of their ailment. Their solutions, which range from religious awakening to pure acceptance, expand on the open-ended nature of the disorder: Everyone deals with fear on their own terms.
As an extension of that view, "The Nightmare" lacks any medical professionals or other prospects for analyzing the physiology behind these encounters. That prevents the movie from earning its scientific credentials, but Ascher still does plenty of detective work, including examples of sleep paralysis visions portrayed throughout art history — proof of its widespread ingredients.
At times, the editing strategies of "The Nightmare" can feel redundant, and Ascher’s decision to occasionally show himself on camera speaking with his subjects distracts from their stories. Still, the collage-like approach — which also includes movie clips and abstract portrayals of visions set to dark backgrounds that wouldn’t seem out of place in "Under the Skin" — makes it possible to remain thoroughly immersed in Ascher’s haunting approach. "The Nightmare" hovers in a place between dreamlike sensations and reality, which grounds its focus.
The scariest part of "The Nightmare" stems from the implication that sleep paralysis holds viral possibilities — one man recalls how his partner began to share his delusions and resent him for them — and the possibility that anyone could encounter them. The scariest aspect of "The Nightmare" is its potential to inflict the malady on its audience, but it also mercifully advances toward the possibility of a cure.
"The Nightmare" premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. theatrical distribution.