Of late I have found myself waking up on top of bus shelters in a pool of water with no memory as to how I got there and it was only after lengthy consultation with a doctor that he came to the conclusion that it may be connected with the ten pints of strong lager drunk beforehand. The subjects in The Nightmare have no such excuse and the condition they suffer is truly terrifying waking up in the middle of the night unable to move but acutely aware of a sinister shadowy figure in their bedroom. Diagnosed as suffering from sleep paralysis, a condition that leaves them hyperaware of their surroundings and the nightmarish ‘shadowman’ figure they can do nothing about, they lie there helpless.
This is Rodney Ascher’s second feature length documentary after the absorbing, Room 237 which centred around the compelling, though in some cases bonkers mad, theories around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Here Ascher interviews several sufferers of sleep paralysis most of which recall incidents from as early as their childhoods where a ‘shadowman’ and an even more sinister ‘Hatman’ emerge from the darkness into their bedrooms at night where paralysis takes over and they find themselves incapable of doing anything and driven almost to the edge of insanity as they try to prevent the visitations reoccurring.
It’s easy to be cynical about this especially when one of them says, ‘I have a problem with consciousness,’ especially when she then goes on to recount her own experience. Yet there is something utterly compelling about each of their stories which, when dramatised, are profoundly disturbing at times and with Ascher’s clever use of sound make your flesh creep. These dramatisations owe much to horror films and though it freely references A Nightmare on Elm Street, which you can’t help but feel that one too many viewings by these people may be an underlying factor, there’s enough in their separate stories to lend credibility to the condition. That aside, there are moments which are suited to the best of Leigh Whannell & James Wan’s collaborations which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and the first half of the film is especially unsettling.
However, the film is more interested in these moments than any sort of medical or psychological analysis and further investigation into how these apparitions may have been sparked by the subjects’ own experiences when very young, presumably because this would undermine the film’s real interest in such utterly disturbing visions. Then again, maybe there is no explanation and Ascher does prefer his supernatural explanations over anything rational and, in fairness, who can blame him with such great stories which he so expertly re- imagines on celluloid. Whatever these people do suffer, the terror is palpable.
Words: Simon Hooper (@anygoodfilms?)