Nightmares are one of the most deeply traumatic and personal spaces in our lives. We descend into a space we all must venture, but a space whose intricate eccentricities are still beyond the realm of understanding. However, there is a strange kinship between nightmares and the experience of cinema itself. Individual and yet collective, we all view the images on the screen through the lens of our own perception; but it is an experience often shared with others in the dark. Sometimes in silence, and sometimes in the rapturous chorus of instinctive response…connecting to a wider culture impulse that drives us. Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s latest foray into the documentary, The Nightmare, is a film that clearly understands this relationship between both the individual and the collective, and furthermore, construction and perception, in the interpretation and real lasting horror of nightmares. Unfortunately, while keenly playful and engaging in its construction, its singular focus becomes limiting, leaving it feeling ultimately shallow as it refuses depth in favour of the mechanics of horror, stopping The Nightmare from truly reaching its potential.

The Nightmare is an examination of sleep paralysis and its debilitating effects, as told by eight people who suffer from this terrifying condition. Ascher uses a combination of low key interviews with his subjects, and detailed reconstructions of the events as perceived by them, realising the nightmares as tangible sites of deconstruction. Indeed, in his previous documentary, Room 237, an exploration of the freedom of interpretation within and lasting mystique of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror The Shining, Ascher used detailed deconstruction of the filmic text itself to analyse the theories presented by the disembodied voices of the fans whose obsession to understand the film that has become their life, illustrating both the real connections and the fantasy of imagined conspiracies in a tapestry of cinematic illusion. In The Nightmare, Ascher carefully jumps between the subjects’ stories and their nightmares. This method of crossing between them creates a sense of fractured parallels; repeated images that are shared, such as the figure of the shadow man, whose omnipresence is particularly eerie, to illustrate connections that are almost unfathomable, suggesting something much greater, maybe even greater than culture, in the formation of these savage dreams: the individual and the collective in some strange, haunting harmony. However, culture itself is at the core of the film in terms of the interpretation and recognition of the nightmare event (as to be expected from a director who treated Kubrick’s film as a great palimpsest to the power of film and the motions of the 20th century itself). This becomes particularly obvious in a segment of the film where the suffers relate the moment films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Communion triggered recognition in relation to their own nightmares, as if the films validated their own experiences and suggested a wider cultural force behind them. This importance of culture becomes even more lucid in one subject’s confession that the noise of a television on standby kept the nightmares away, and as the power of one set to keep them at bay diminished, he bought more and more, leading to a beautiful image of dozens of TV sets playing white noise, the fire of modern culture keeping the subconscious at bay.

However, for all of the elegant simplicity and careful representation of his thematic direction, Ascher’s film lacks a crucial depth that would stand alongside the freedom expressed in the dream. As previously stated, Room 237 not only reinforced some ideas, but clearly allowed the openness of the interpretation to suggest that this is in fact illusion, something we as subject are adding to the text. While this worked in degrees within Room 237, it backfires in the construction of The Nightmare. The lack of any medical, psychological or even philosophical expertise in relation to the concepts on display ultimately makes the film feel less validated as a work of true analysis, as there is no counterpoint, or even space to see beyond the shared, bias perspectives of the suffers. I don’t believe this decision was one to cloud judgement (in fact, it could be seen as a way of focusing on the isolation felt by those who have been unable to find support through this hard experience) but I do feel it could have made for a more balanced piece. Furthermore, Ascher attempts to add a couple of jump scares into the film, moments that serve to take the viewer out of the liminal space created by the imagined of the nightmare and the reality of the reconstruction, and feels too forced. It’s as if he felt the film needed to up the horror in a classical sense…when in fact, that imagined/constructed space stands as the true horror of the film. It is a space that makes explicit the truth of the nightmare, and the lie of cinema…each of these realities are traumatic upon the audience, caught in a space of hidden and revealed.

The Nightmare is an interesting attempt to use the unique properties of film to explore the unfathomable nature of nightmares, bringing them to life on the screen to be interpreted and at their most simplest, endured. However, as a complete film, The Nightmare finds itself as frustratingly elusive as dreams themselves, unable to keep the audience paralysed by fear or grasping for greater understanding.

DVD Review: The Nightmare
3.0Overall Score
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: