'The Nightmare': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
An intriguing doc attempt to give us all bad dreams

When bedtime is the worst time of day

Neither as frightening as a good horror flick nor as enlightening as a straight documentary, Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare borrows from both worlds in its depiction of the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Combining interviews with eight subjects who've suffered this syndrome for years with moody reenactments of their nighttime terrors, the doc generates sympathy for their plight while, if it believes what it says, perhaps spreading the condition to suggestible members of the audience. Following up Ascher's much-buzzed doc about Stanley Kubrick obsessives, Room 237, the film will benefit from some spillover attention but will fare best on TV after the fest circuit.

Sleep paralysis is a condition between wakefulness and sleep in which a person has the sensation of being fully conscious but unable to move or speak. For some, it is accompanied by tingling sensations, strange noises, and terrifying visions — visions that have been recorded in similar terms around the world for centuries: Shadowy men who loom toward the immobile body, black cats who sit on one's chest, inexplicable premonitions of evil.

Ascher conducts his interviews in dimly lit rooms, using setups that sometimes gradually reveal his presence as an interviewer. (The better for him, eventually, to share his own experience with this condition.) As each of these poor souls tells his story, we slide from interview to stylized reenactments: First we see actors lying in bed, eyes open, twitching from side to side as they struggle to reenter the waking world; then we watch the black shadowmen, stepping from dark corners and cuddling up behind the would-be sleepers.

The creepiness of these scenes is diminished by the distancing effect of the interviews, despite laid-on-thick bits of horror-film vocabulary. (Though composer Jonathan Snipes is sometimes called upon for a shock cue, he's more effective when supplying the crackly, staticky texture sleepers describe hearing when they enter this state.)

Sufferers recount the many ways they've tried to fight this condition, but doctors and psychologists seemingly offer little help. We can infer that some grew up in troubled homes, where abuse likely amplified the problem, but even interviewees who hint at nothing of that nature sometimes complain of being paralyzed nearly every night.

Perhaps in an effort to steep us more thoroughly in their world, Ascher never interviews any outsider for clinical or historical perspective. Apart from some shots of Wikipedia pages and Reddit forums, we have no scholarly confirmation of their experience. What we do have, though, is the suggestion that the syndrome is contagious: One man says he never experienced sleep paralysis until a girlfriend described it. Later, a victim recalls telling his woes to a friend and getting a text the next day whose "I hate you I HATE YOU" indicated that the friend was now a sufferer as well. The speaker jokes that sleep paralysis is like an STD, but a better comparison might be yawning — if the idea enters your head, it's hard to keep your brain from going there.

If that's true, Ascher's next doc might well be about the legion of Nightmare viewers who began stalking him after they, too, joined the ranks of the nocturnally paralyzed.

Production companies: Zipper Brothers Films, Campfire Production
Director-Editor: Rodney Ascher
Producers: Ross M. Dinerstein, Glen Zipper
Executive producers: Jamie Carmichael, Kevin Iwashina
Director of photography: Bridger Nielson
Production designers: Ben Spiegelman, Evan Ross Murphy
Costume designer: Courtney Arthur
Music: Jonathan Snipes
Sales: Preferred Content

No rating, 90 minutes