Directed by Rodney Ascher
Eight people experience sleep paralysis, a condition which leaves them unable to move, speak or react.
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★★★★★ review by nathaxnne walker on Letterboxd
This movie legitimately scared the hell out of me. Like hair-on-end, goosebump-inducing, tremors in your legs, all that stuff. I finished watching it and it is still scaring me. Listen: don't watch this movie in the daytime if you want its full effects. Watch it in the middle of the night. I could go on about the set design or the sound design or the awesome Jonathan Snipes score (he also scored 'Starry Eyes'), but that is not why this movie was so scary to me. It is scary to me because I have lived my entire life with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but have never listened to other people's stories about it until now, until watching this movie. So, for me, it is like hearing someone else tell you about your life. Also, 'The Nightmare' is full of intentionally dis-real re-enactments narrated by the persons who are telling the stories. These are incredible. In this way, this movie is both radically comforting, and radically terrifying. It is a fine, maybe the finest, example of docu-horror that I have seen. This concludes the normal reviewing part of this review. You could stop reading now.
So, I lived my whole life, from being very small onward, with occasional sleep paralysis and far-out experiences of liminal consciousness around the borders of sleep. I would have long hypnogogic flows of imagery and sound that would go on and on for what seemed like hours all throughout my childhood and adolescence. Sometimes I would see stuff there, in those spaces, sometimes I would die or fall or perceive other beings. Apparently, sleep paralysis is associated with anxiety disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and chronic migraine. I have all that stuff too, so that makes sense. I had a period of super-intense experiences related to sleep paralysis that I wanted to talk about here. When I was 19 years old, the summer after my first year of college, I was living in my then-girlfriend's apartment with one other of her friends. She was not there, spending the summer with friends on a lake. I worked at a gas station, from 11pm to 7am. I liked the job. I would come home, drink some beer, smoke some weed, watch cable news, listen to Royal Trux or Hawkwind or Cypress Hill or Monster Magnet or whatnot (this was in 1993), and try to go to sleep. That is when stuff started to happen. My limbs would move independently of my conscious control, the tv would begin using itself to talk to me, I wouldn't be able to move, and that is when the demons or entities or whatever would come. They were terrifying, and hungry. They would come right up alongside me, into my ear. I could feel their astral cilia brushing up and into me, trying to get at whatever they wanted to eat there. I could feel their buzzing, vibrating at a higher pitch than sound, but like sound. They were like insectile amoebas with translucent internal organ systems. I couldn't see them, but I could perceive them. They never seemed like they were having very complex thoughts or motivations, but they brought with them intense paranoia and bad aura. I had terrible thoughts when they were around, and everything seemed malevolent. I was sure I was having a nervous breakdown and/or a psychotic break, but I was also sure that these things were real, they were there, all the time doing stuff independently of me or my going mad. This would happen whether or not I ended my day with beer or weed, and I wasn't doing any hallucinogens. In fact, the self-medication was occasionally helpful, and occasionally very not helpful, but it wasn't the cause of any of it. I would pray and pray during the whole ordeal, unable to move most of myself. They didn't feel like classical Western demons like you would find in a demonology manual, they felt more like low-level astral predators who had attached themselves to me. It was clear my work-related sleep schedule was having a deleterious effect, so when I couldn't take it anymore, I called in sick forever and told them that I couldn't come to work due to a bad case of demonic possession. They were Christians, and I had hoped they would be understanding. They were not. This acute case tapered off as I stopped going to that job, and the summer ended and I went back to school. Before that, it cost me that girlfriend I had had, who really hadn't signed up for some hysterical 19-year old kid going on and on about demons, and it fundamentally shook how I thought my life was going to go, what I was going to do, and how I was going to go about it. I had suffered from mental illness for years, far-out states of being for years, but nothing quite like this. After this period, I had lots of other experiences in and out of sleep paralysis, and met lots of other different entities, some right up until recent times. But this was the most intense time in my life for this, and until I watched 'The Nightmare', I didn't really have a way of fully grasping or framing that experience. So, yeah!
★★★★ review by Hentai Cop on Letterboxd
All of the negative reviews on this site are startling, but perhaps I'm in the minority for having loved Room 237 as well. I think that Rodney Ascher is an absolutely amazing editor and his documentaries are some of the most visually striking and well structured films in the medium. With The Nightmare he has proved himself to be one of the most aesthetically ambitious documentarians and the way his films are shot reminds me of the beauty on display in some of Errol Morris' recreation docs. I'm honestly surprised that people find this film boring or wanted there to be more of a scientific explanation for the subject matter, because Ascher's focus is never on facts but on singular experiences and subjective perceptions; why the hell do I need some expert talking about sleep paralysis when it's far more engaging to hear a terrifying story about it. Good cinema is all about storytelling, after all. This is an awesome documentary, and I suggest watching it like I did: in bed with the lights off right before going to sleep.
★★★★ review by Austin Armstrong on Letterboxd
Rodney Ascher is creating his own genre in the form of horror documentaries. Tense throughout, and incredibly scary reenactments make this by far the most frightening documentary I've ever seen! As someone who has experienced sleep paralysis before, I can tell you first hand it is a very scary experience to not be able to move your body. However I never saw any entities. I would love to hear an opinion from someone that has experienced this how similar if at all, this film is to what they've gone through. Rodney need to make a fictional horror at some point in his career!
★★★★ review by Keith Garrett on Letterboxd
Silly me thought that watching this in broad daylight wouldn't be scary..
★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
Rodney Ascher is, I think, a little older than me, and yet his films make me feel like I've travelled back to my childhood. It was a remarkable time, the 1990s, a time where that brief interregnum in between Vast Wars for the Future of Western Civilization led the entire world to shrug and go "Shall we get back into Bigfoot again?" I do understand why people see that less as a lost idyll and more of a global collapse into idiocy, by the way. It's just that the other day I saw a kid of about eight or nine suddenly bug his eyes out with rage and start throwing things at three teenage Muslim girls walking past him. When you see that, it's hard not to yearn for the days when people were scared of monsters from space, rather than their neighbours.
So The Nightmare is another film about subjectivity from the director of Room 237, complete with some of the funny-creepy retro-TV trimmings of his entertaining short The S From Hell. I don't think exploring subjectivity is a bad thing for a documentary to do, frankly - Errol Morris has made a career out of it, and there are a lot of war documentaries like Winter Soldier and Censored Voices based around testimony.
Some, not all, of the criticism of Room 237 seemed to assume Ascher must endorse the theories he's showing, otherwise why show them? I think that film supplies its own answer, and it's an answer The Nightmare refines. It is divided into several chapters but it really has three movements. In the first highly subjective segment, Ascher's interviewees recount their early experiences with sleep paralysis, a harmless but completely terrifying condition. In the second, they discover, either through media or medical attention, why they have these dreams. After this brief anchor in objective fact, act three sees them start to draw their own conclusions about their condition, which draws some of them back out into unreason and subjectivity.
So what we're watching is the human mind encounter an unexplained event, learn about it, then try and integrate it into their pre-existing belief structures. Sleep paralysis nightmares are eerily consistent across eras and cultures, and the reason for this is obviously because ultraterrestrials have been trying to condition us into accepting their imminent invasion through our dreams. But in the past, they have been interpreted as omens, demons visiting during the night, or more recently alien abductions. As you'd expect from a Rodney Ascher film, the interviewees often see their experiences echoed in films, some of which are expected (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and some of which are clearly more personal (Natural Born Killers).
Ascher brilliantly constructs his films as a series of parallel universes which bleed into each other. We expect documentaries to use some visual trick to differentiate their interviews from their reconstructions, for example, but the use of a consistent visual style, as well as allowing the interviewees to re-enact their own nightmares, makes it feel as if the realities of the films are collapsing into each other even before it starts giving the fourth wall a going-over. And the more ambiguous it gets, the scarier it gets, although for me there was nothing more skin-pricklingly horrid as the phone call one interviewee received earlier on.
At one point the camera moves back to reveal Ascher himself, but the mise-en-scene - gently swaying hand-held, discomforting backwards movement - makes it feel less like a reassuring, authorial presence and more like the unsettling reveal of yet another level of reality underpinning this movie. I honestly wouldn't have been surprised if the camera moved back another few feet to reveal someone interviewing Ascher, then back to show someone interviewing him, then another person behind him, and on and on, like some lost collaboration between MC Escher and William Greaves.
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