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MIFF 2015: The Nightmare

Does any film really need a title card to define a word as universally understood as “nightmare”? If you’re Rodney Ascher, no amount of explanation is too much. How much residual goodwill do you have for his last documentary, Room 237? It doesn’t matter. The only eerie thing about The Nightmare is how well it replicates the experience of watching someone else’s vacation videos.

The Nightmare has a perfectly intriguing premise: to explore, through stylised horror-film recreations, how ordinary people’s sleep paralysis bleeds over from dreams to waking life. The staging of those dreams, all red-eyed boogeymen creeping into shadowy bedrooms, is competent. But then comes the amateur voiceover, and the even more amateur reaction shots of people looking terrified in bed – and the film’s dead on arrival. Webster’s defines “redundancy” as “these goddamn people incessantly recapping what’s onscreen AS IT HAPPENS”.

‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” - Tony Soprano

Rodney Ascher himself interviews his subjects onscreen, though they’re played by actors in the dream recreations – not that you’d know it, from their Wow I Am Scared Look At Me Emoting For My Acting Reel expressions. Most of the time, Ascher genuinely wants you to identify with his subjects’ experiences; not just their dreams, but the all-too-real instances of waking paralysis that make them never want to sleep again.

But the thing is, the documentarian is supposed to be the storyteller. It’s their responsibility to make their potentially camera-untrained subjects seem compelling. Instead, they look uncomfortable on camera, and sound awkward off. Ascher’s constantly hanging them with their own rope. It’s easier to blame their lack of charisma over his shoddy filmmaking. Why not take their faces out of the film altogether? Why does every lurking monster need an accompanying slow-motion reaction shot? Why tell us what we’re already seeing? Why not just let us be scared?

Didactic (adj.): when art aggressively tells you what the fuck to think

Horror films can be blunt, sure, but they’re usually far from didactic. Truly great horror can be read in all manner of ways; even shitty franchise sequels are campy enough to give you something to laugh at. Somehow, Rodney Ascher’s taken two infinitely open-ended constructs – horror and dreams – and made the most literal possible film about either.

Nightmares and horror films aren’t purely visual experiences; they scare us because they articulate something deeper. All The Nightmare needs to do is show the effects of sleep paralysis, and that it can happen to anyone. Its dream recreations should be a visual metaphor: if you get scared just watching some movie, imagine experiencing it for yourself. Dreams are infinite; these stagings are so concrete, so literal, that they actively shrink the possibilities of film as an art form. Every picture demands a thousand words – of exposition. A blank screen would be an improvement. At least then, the sound design could do its job.

The Nightmare might be the first film that would make a scarier podcast. It fails at creating empathy, terror, scientific conclusions, anything but the bare minimum of raising awareness. It’s passable horror set design in search of a film. It shows not only YouTube videos on sleep paralysis, but screenshots of Wikipedia and Reddit pages, all of which are objectively more informative. This Cracked article is more rigorously edited. There are plenty of bad documentaries, and even more bad horror films, but simultaneously reaching the nadir of both? That’s quite an achievement.

During one interview, some unmemorable dude recalling a dream says “I can’t describe it”, then immediately proceeds to describe it. If Rodney Ascher made The Nightmare because of his own experiences with sleep paralysis, he should logically be directing the sequel from a coma.

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