Documentarian Rodney Ascher makes movies with catchy concepts that, deep down, aren’t about the thing they claim to be. His 2012 debut Room 237 investigated the obsessive The Shining fans who have devoted their lives to exploring Stanley Kubrick’s film, picking the horror movie apart to find all the hidden messages they think the director embedded within its frames. At its core, though, Room 237 isn’t about conspiracy theories or even The Shining, but, rather, fandom and the way our favorite movies seem to expand in our minds, suggesting worlds of meaning their makers probably never intended.
Ascher’s follow-up, The Nightmare, is also a very human story, in that it isn’t what it claims to be. It purports to explore the phenomenon of sleep paralysis—but it’s really about how people try to make sense of the world around them.
In The Nightmare, Ascher interviews several sufferers of a rare condition in which one is neither asleep nor awake, trapped in bed unable to move as frightening visions surround the person. (Sometimes it’s a shadowy figure. Other times, it might be a metal claw that attacks the victim’s genitals.) We don’t get much background on Ascher’s subjects, which seems to be in keeping with the filmmaker’s similar technique in Room 237. Ascher wants to immerse us in his participants’ stories, leaving the totality of their lives a teasing mystery. Though, unlike in Room 237, which relied only on audio interviews, we do see his subjects speak in The Nightmare, helping to elicit sympathy for their plights.
The documentary moves between talking-head interviews and reenactments of the subjects’ experiences with sleep paralysis. Ascher, who directed a segment of the horror omnibus The ABCs of Death 2, stages the reenactments with actors, opting for a moody, ominous tone that wouldn’t quite be described as frightening—although there are a couple jump scares. More accurately, The Nightmare conjures a feeling of creeping dread, of lives burdened by the worry that, again tonight, horrifying images may descend upon them.
That quiet anxiety can be seen on the faces of Ascher’s subjects: the man from Los Angeles who’s been plagued by images of aliens since he was in a crib; the atheist from Costa Mesa who found Jesus as a way to block out the terrors. Not unlike Errol Morris, Ascher is fascinated by the quirks of human behavior: He’s curious how people can rationalize their lives as they cope with the obstacles they can’t overcome. But as Ascher reveals during The Nightmare, his interest is also personal: He, too, experiences sleep paralysis, and it seems that he’s able to glean such candid, engaging interviews because he understands these people’s unique trauma. Ascher’s subjects reveal that dismissive parents assumed they’d grow out of their nightmare terrors. As for doctors, well, they also weren’t much help, mostly suggesting that the interviewees reduce stress and eat better, which for most didn’t work.
The Nightmare doesn’t propose to be a definitive overview of the medical reasons why some people are affected by sleep paralysis. (No doctors or experts weigh in.) That’s not a failing, though: The lack of “answers” only makes Ascher’s subjects’ situation all the more frustrating and seemingly hopeless. One young New Yorker tells Ascher that he’s come to peace with the idea that sleep paralysis will someday kill him: He’ll stop breathing and that’ll be it. He’s not alone, as several of the interviewees appear to be resigned to their fates of never shaking their condition. (Some went years between experiences, but it always comes back eventually.) As soon becomes obvious, the movie’s title doesn’t so much refer to nocturnal experiences as it does to the waking state of unease that consumes these people.
If The Nightmare ultimately isn’t as transfixing as Room 237, it nonetheless strengthens one’s conviction that Ascher has found a rich vein of nonfiction filmmaking he’s made his own. He doesn’t judge his subjects, he lets them speak for themselves. He has faith that his audience will be thoughtful enough to put themselves in his interviewees’ positions, wondering about fate, luck and the universal instinct to find meaning in the inexplicable. With The Nightmare, that faith is rewarded.
Director: Rodney Ascher
Release Date: June 5, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.