With Room 237, director Rodney Ascher provided a highly entertaining exploration of over-analyzation as it pertains to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. He now returns to Sundance Film Festival a few years later aiming to petrify with a perhaps more relatable documentary for some scourged individuals. The Nightmare, which explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, is an intriguing feature, but one that ends up dulling your senses with repetitive talking heads and recreated scenarios.
Ascher, who is seen in the frame during a few interviews, scoured the globe for those greatly afflicted by the transitional state of paralyzing fear and found eight tortured souls. For a refresher, sleep paralysis refers to the occurrence when someone is locked in a frightening state in which they can’t speak or move after falling asleep or before waking up. As brought to life in a series of reenactments — only a few of which provide some scares — we witness their respective traumatic moments, made up of red-eyed shadowy men, static creatures, aliens, and a gun-toting rollerblader.
Through a series of title cards, Ascher takes us through the entire process in an indexed fashion, including the history of sleep paralysis in various works of art, the subjects’ actual experiences, attempting to make sense of the trauma, what the future holds for those afflicted, and more. The eight subjects interviewed are physically featured (unlike Room 237), usually in their low-lit homes, which adds to the creepiness factor as they each discuss their experiences, of which there are many correlations.
Ascher is clearly aware that the most captivating aspect of the affliction is the otherworldly element, considering the detail he puts into the reenactments. The various subjects discuss their suffering in detail, including experiences in a crib and references to Insidious, Communion, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jacob’s Ladder. Their stories then come to life, resulting in genuinely unsettling segments to cheap jump scares to flat-out cheaply produced retellings.
While there’s very little in the way of conclusions, for some, they believe their life is expanded and more fulfilled for having endured these experience, even if the suffocating nature might lead to their eventual death. If there’s anything to be gleaned, it’s that Ascher has done the rare achievement of making a non-fiction feature that may prove relatably terrifying to some audiences.
What could have been a fantastic one-hour TV special (if all of your lights are turned off) is ultimately a prolonged, but ominous affair with some welcome humor. If you or your loved ones have experienced the phenomenon, The Nightmare will surely rustle up some demons. If not, it might put you to sleep and that’s the scariest outcome of all.
The Nightmare premiered at Sundance Film Festival.