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The Nightmare sets out aiming to be two things; a documentary focusing on eight people and their accounts of an event that haunts them every night and a horror film about the most everyday thing: falling asleep. Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that occurs, to these eight individuals, on a regular basis. They have been living with it for years, experiencing an inability to move or speak coupled with vivid hallucinations dredged up from the worst parts of their subconscious. Director Rodney Ascher used a combination of talking heads interviews and re-enactments staged to try and recreate some of the terrifying experiences those plagued with sleep paralysis suffer. This documentary-horror film hybrid proves there is more than one way to make a film that’s ‘inspired by true events’ and Ascher’s new way of approaching a concept that’s already been well-covered in films (see any films in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise as an example) provides a new insight into these people’s conditions.
The film itself interviewed the individuals about their personal experiences in great detail; from when they first started suffering from it, how it changed and worsened over the years, failed attempts at seeking help from medical professionals and their own methods of how they deal with it. Apart from learning about these eight, very subjective experiences, there was a lack of any other form of information about sleep paralysis which would be expected from a standard documentary. While each person briefly acknowledged the existence of a scientific explanation, they quickly went on to dismiss it, explaining the phenomenon with their own theories, which included everything from religion to the supernatural and the occult. The audience was left in the dark about the actual science of sleep paralysis which was definitely needed to give more credit to the interviewees’ accounts as their dismissal of fact followed by their own far-out beliefs did not make them come across as particularly sane.
For this film, Ascher found eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis and also seemed to have a penchant for amateur acting. The interviewees played themselves in the re-enactments that interspersed the talking heads scenes- not Ascher’s best idea as their performances came across as slightly hammy. Although arguably who better to portray the feeling of sleep paralysis than those who suffer from it? Whilst the acting lacked subtlety, at least their portrayal of the experience was accurate. Ascher did use some actors to recreate the interviewees’ accounts but only playing side characters so minor- a sleeping roommate, the ‘Shadow-men’ who wore black morphsuits for the entirety of their screen time- it’s a wonder he bothered.
Whilst having little frame of reference of dealing with the horrors these people live through every night, the horror itself was hit and miss. Done with a style that would not be out of place in a B-movie that went straight to DVD, the overall effect was incredibly stylised and the special effects were lacking in both presence and budget. Some parts did leave a lasting impression such as the ominous shadow men, a common feature that frequently appeared across the varied accounts. They are one of the most universal and terrifying aspects of sleep paralysis and Ascher would have done well to dwell on them more instead of cutting away to another interview. The interviews took away from the terror as their frequentness often interrupted the tension the re-enactments were trying to build up. Whilst the interviews tried to add to the horror they definitely tried too hard- one instance where an interviewee jumps at a slight sound from another room and spends far too long staring into the doorway trying to locate the source was particularly laughable.
The Nightmare concluded with each individual attempting to wrap up their own experiences. With some it was easy- one woman found religion when her sleep paralysis stopped after banishing one of the terrors by saying ‘In Jesus’s name, get out’, another came to terms with the shadow people when they told her they were her deceased mother. Others described their coming to terms with sleep paralysis in a different manner, instead of curing themselves they morbidly accepted that their paralysis would be what kills them. The individuals’ accounts trailed off when they were not able to give a definite end to their stories, their lack of closure being conveyed to the audience by the absence of an outcome. The feeling at the end of the film was more like that of a documentary but, what with the lack of actual information, it did not feel like we had learned anything. All the audience had learned was that no one is safe, not even when they’re asleep.