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Sleep paralysis sounds like a real nightmare. According to Wikipedia (a source this film’s director cites throughout), the paralysis is “a phenomenon in which a person, either falling asleep or awakening, temporarily experiences an inability to move, speak or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by complete muscle weakness. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (such as an intruder in the room) to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body).” Sleep paralysis is widely unknown to the public and is a subject ripe for the makings of a great documentary.
Enter director Rodney Ascher, who experienced recent success with 2012’s Room 237. That documentary gave voice to those with wild conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. In Ascher’s new doc, The Nightmare, the director gives a voice to eight people suffering from sleep paralysis, but he can’t use clips from a masterpiece to best tell his story. This go-round finds the filmmaker far more concerned with breaking the form of the traditional documentary than he is with providing any kind of narrative flow.
While there are chapter breaks in The Nightmare, the film is really just 90 minutes of eight subjects telling slightly different versions of the same story. Many of these surround seeing “shadow men”: entities in the forms of human beings, but as black and featureless as a shadow. These shadow men creep into the bedrooms of the paralyzed, with the afflicted powerless to escape from them. The Nightmare cuts between the interviewees telling these stories with Ascher’s reenactments featuring actors and special effects. At first, the format is effective. One subject recollects seeing two shadow men that look like aliens filled with a TV-like static (best way either the subject or I can describe it) while one woman remembers one of them tap-tap-tapping on her bedroom window. The scariest reenactment comes when a man thinks he has woken up and answers his phone to a pleasant voice asking, “Can you do me a favor?” before it demands “Let…me…in!”
In some cases, the shadow men have glowing red eyes and are threatening. A young man recalls one standing at the side of his bed, checking in at eight feet tall. This monstrosity repeatedly tells him that he is going to die. Another red-eyed shadow man lies beside a young woman but says nothing discernible. The fact that these subjects share so many characteristics in their nightmares proves most fascinating, but once Ascher’s subjects begin to offer up their own points of view of what’s happening to them, the documentary begins to unravel.
In one case, a subject blames his girlfriend explaining her own experience with sleep paralysis for why he has it. Later on in life, several of the man’s friends blame him for essentially passing it on to them. Another woman said that after years of battling the paralysis, she stopped having the dreams as soon as she finally accepted Jesus Christ, though another subject says the power of prayer never worked. A spiritual woman claimed that “black fluid” from her fear is consumed by the shadow men and is what they’re really after. This is the part of The Nightmare where we enter the realm of the supernatural and spiritual, even though scientists are more than convinced that sleep paralysis is a scientific issue. Whether Ascher is attempting to give credence to these subjects or poke fun at them isn’t made clear, but their common thread begins to unravel the more and more they ramble on.
The most egregious example of a filmmaker doing what he wants because he can arrives when The Nightmare breaks the fourth wall for absolutely no reason. More than two-thirds of the way through the film, we watch as the shadow men exit one scene and walk through what is obviously the exterior of a set, only to walk into the bedroom set of another victim. One shadow man even has someone from wardrobe help him with a quick change. What is the point of this? Why are we seeing behind-the-scenes of a re-enactment while the subject is still telling their story?
Truth is, Ascher didn’t have enough material. The reenactments lose their ability to scare after half an hour, and he not only allows his subjects to ramble on for far too long, but he doesn’t give the audience the courtesy of cutting away. The Nightmare had the chance to shed light on a disturbing medical condition but settles instead for repetition, unnecessary directorial flourishes, and too many unreliable narrators.
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