Film Reviews

REVIEW: The Nightmare

Hot Docs 2015

USA, 91 min.
Directed by Rodney Ascher
International Premiere

The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to his labyrinthine doc Room 237, shares with its predecessor a focus on handpicked subjects possessed by an obsession. In Room 237, Ascher’s characters spoke about their fascination with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With absolute certainty, they tried to prove oddball, even crackpot interpretations of the movie. As they spun out their ideas, Ascher cycled through key images from the film with compulsive attention, slowing them down, repeating them, montaging them, ultimately revealing how uncanny the movie is. As a horror film, Room 237 might be more frightening than The Shining itself.

Ascher told a Q & A that Hot Docs was the first documentary festival to show The Nightmare; he’s been doing the horror circuit. The film’s eight characters suffer deeply from a torment called sleep paralysis. Half awake, half asleep in the middle of the night, they become frozen with terror, unable to move their bodies.

Throughout the film, we see these people lying in bed, or upright giving densely detailed accounts of being assaulted by everything from colours and patterns to bone-rattling noises and screechy voices. They have a sense of being watched by malevolent forces. One guy claims to be tortured by creatures with generic alien eyes.

Most of the sufferers have been horrified by nocturnal shadows—and shadows of shadows—of silhouettes wearing wide-brimmed hats. Other fiends appear to be genial and helpful, but are really demons in nice people disguise.

The monstrosities, which Ascher dramatises with horror techniques like shock picture and sound cuts, and a nerve-jangling score, lie down beside their victims. They push forward, even rape. The hapless victims try to pull back but can’t. They are paralyzed.

Certain movies have very effectively invoked creatures like these: Jacob’s Ladder, Juliet of the Spirits, moments in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Wes Craven’s inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street was the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

Some victims believe such spectres are real. Others investigate: one of the doc’s chapters is called Figuring it Out. They try to figure out: is there too much of the hormone melatonin in the blood? For many in Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the creatures of the night are duppies, pure and simple. Anybody’s grandmother can tell you how to conquer malevolent spirits. As for conventional medical help, the characters in The Nightmare get no relief from it. A psychiatrist told one of the subjects, “Wow, that’s really messed up.”

I had high expectations for Ascher’s doc, but started getting restless halfway through. He takes a real shot at fusing direct-to-camera doc footage with staged horror, but some of the staging is corny. And the nonstop reciting of similar stories gets oppressive and numbing. Ultimately, The Nightmare is a not-so-terrifying follow-up to Room 237.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat, May 2 9:15 PM
Revue Cinema

Sun, May 3 9:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

View all articles by Maurie Alioff »