Directed by Rodney Ascher
Opens June 5
Director Rodney Ascher is responsible for controversial 2012 documentary Room 237, which proved simultaneously fascinating and preposterous in ceding large sections of analysis to the tinfoil hat contingent of Stanley Kubrick Studies. His latest blend of fact and speculation, The Nightmare, proceeds along the same lines: there’s virtually no way not to be engrossed by the film’s subject—sleep paralysis—but also no way not to remain somewhat skeptical of its anti-scientific flights of fancy.
For The Nightmare Ascher interviews eight victims of persistent sleep paralysis, a condition in which the sleeper remains fully conscious while unable to move his or her body. Like many, the film’s subjects suffer paralysis via demonic dream manifestations ranging from corporeal shadows to Communion-esque aliens. Ascher stakes his film on recreations of his interviewees’ stories, and the results are lamentably silly—you’d think that as a fan of The Shining Ascher would know a thing or two about what makes for original screen horror, but his depictions of haunted slumber merely recycle the most predictable genre clichés, including jump scares and distorted voices. Some expressionistic lighting schemes and slow tracking shots look purty, but overall The Nightmare’s visual raisons d’être play like show-offy shots from a cinematographer’s demo reel.
More than that, the film refuses to counter its subjects’ estimations of paranormal or supernatural forces as the factors behind their paralyses and visions. Not that such estimations are inherently laughable—the nocturnal realm invites such ponderings—but The Nightmare dismisses any rational understandings of consistently disturbed sleep in less than three minutes, and the word “neurological” isn’t uttered once. A lack of authoritative sources beyond briefly glimpsed Wikipedia entries places Ascher’s project under deep suspicion, and when the film concludes with tales of the ghoul-vanquishing power of prayer and the return of deceased relatives one can’t help feeling deceived and manipulated. If you’re going to go the new age route then by all means take up fiction filmmaking like that bastion of profundity, M. Night Shyamalan—otherwise leave mysterious phenomena to pros like Werner Herzog, whose truth-bendings at least take more complex, entertaining, and well-researched form.