Rodney Ascher’s strengths as a filmmaker come down to how he manages to mess with the minds of his audience. Whether that’s by presenting increasingly in-depth analysis of select sequences in Kubrick’s The Shining or by taking something absurd – a fear of the 1964 Screen Gems logo – and turning it into a collective symbol for the fear of popular culture controlled by a mysterious force. In The Nightmare, he is able to fairly effectively play with expectations and the experience of sleep paralysis, particularly in the back half of the film. The issue with The Nightmare isn’t necessarily in its aim to awkwardly position the viewer, it’s in the execution of the film as a whole, packed with fairly limp talking head interviews and relying on dopey jump scares. Unlike the restrained and seemingly complex Room 237, his latest film feels far too one-note to be anything more than a cursory exploration of sleep paralysis married with an inconsistent visual representation of those fears.
Where in Room 237 the subjects of the film were never seen, only heard, the first crucial mistake Ascher makes here is placing his sleep paralysis sufferers front-and-center. Whilst there’s some value in the normalisation of sleep paralysis that comes through seeing a variety of people calmly discussing it, this also neuters much of the actual tension that could have been drawn from the re-enactments, which are often narrated themselves. The lack of separation between experience and information isn’t something that was an issue for Room 237, which was able to create a claustrophobic air simply by using only clips from one film. Here, though, we’re told what to look out for, and the film vastly varies in its attempts to successfully garner tension. What would have been far more impactful would be a decision to adopt only fictive re-enactments as the visual component of the film. The opening sequence, which sees a newsreader talk directly to a kid who is watching television, was a striking and funny way to begin the first film that Ascher has actually had to shoot footage for. The best moment in the film is an indulgence in this notion of fictive artifice, when one of the dark figures of the nightmares walks out of one room on a soundstage, is handed a jacket by a PA, and enters another, as the camera moves up and out to reveal the series of rooms used for these nightmare scenes.
Something also missing from the film is an engaging intertextual analysis. Even The S from Hell was clearly drawn from a pop culture afflicted worldview, whereas in The Nightmare we get welcome asides about Insidious and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but not enough to actually suggest that horror films might have impacted how we perceive sleep paralysis, particularly in light of how often Ascher plumbs the tropes of horror films in his re-enactments. Also unexplored is a cultural approach to sleep paralysis; though we get conversations about religious experiences and the notion that people who think they’ve been abducted by aliens probably just had sleep paralysis, there’s only an off-hand mention of the consistency between representations of sleep paralysis and nightmares in history and art. When that point is raised in the film, the fact that Ascher has only interviewed seven Americans and a Brit becomes even more starkly apparent, rendering the film merely an imaginative take on a very narrow, and perhaps shallow, interpretation of sleep paralysis.
Naturally a lot of these issues stem not only from the script and structure but also the editing of the film, which lumbers through a sequence of short chapters, complete with unnecessary intertitles. Some of them last only a few minutes, and their designated moment of discussion instead makes the film feel like the first draft of an essay; though Ascher has never strived for academic or scientific analysis he can’t even really achieve a saliently constructed emotional or visceral arc in this film.
Whilst it’s interesting in its own right for a documentary to toy with the fiction inherent in every dream and nightmare, it’s not enough for the latest film from Rodney Ascher to do the same. It’s a cursory follow-up to one of the most amusing and playfully sinister documentaries in recent memory, and in that regard The Nightmare cannot be anything but a disappointment.
Around the Staff