The Nightmare is a 2015 documentary that explores the horrors of sleep paralysis. Nightmares have long been fuel for some of horror’s most famous creations. Frankenstein began as a dream by author Mary Shelly of a monster made up of different body parts, and The Terminator came to James Cameron as a vivid nightmare about a chrome skeleton cut in half and dragging itself along the floor, clutching a butcher knife. Of course, the most famous sleep stalker in cinema is A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, who dispatches victims in creatively gruesome ways while they dream.
Before directing The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher was best known for his documentary Room 237. This dealt with the many, many conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with the doc taking the form of people talking about their interpretations over footage from the movie. These theories range from the film being a parable for the Holocaust to Kubrick confessing he was responsible for faking the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some of these outlandish ideas are kind of fascinating while others are downright insane, which made Room 237 a compelling watch.
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He followed up with The Nightmare in 2015, which looks at the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. This is a condition where people are aware of their surroundings during sleep but are unable to speak or move, and they can sometimes experience terrifying hallucinations in this state. The exact causes of this condition can vary and The Nightmare interviews several people who have suffered from it.
The Nightmare goes a step further by recreating some of their hallucinates, such as imagining shadowy creatures moving around their room while they sleep. The documentary isn’t a particularly deep dive in the condition itself, which is a little disappointing and it seems more intent on recreating the sensations the dreamer’s experience during sleep paralysis. This results in some undeniably creepy sequences, and since its likely most people have suffered a particularly vivid nightmare at least once in their lives, The Nightmare can also be very relatable.
The documentary also looks at sleep paralysis’ links to stories of alien abduction and uses clips from the likes of Jacob’s Ladder and James Wan’s Insidious to illustrate its points. The Nightmare is a merging of documentary and horror film, resulting in some eerie dream sequences, but it can be disappointingly light on the actual subject itself. Still, it’s worth a look for anybody interested in the topic or Ascher’s previous work.
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