The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Nightmare

Rodney Ascher does not make documentaries the way most filmmakers do, and he's not afraid to take on uncommon subject matter. His first film, Room 237, looked at conspiracy theories related to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and relied on the constant scrutinization of clips from that movie. His latest, The Nightmare, is about sleep paralysis. It uses harrowing reenactments of night terrors to show the abject fear felt by those inflected with the disorder. The result is a fascinating and creepy experience that will have you praying you never know what sleep paralysis feels like.

The Nightmare introduces us to eight people, all of whom have come to dread slumber. Whereas most of us fall into a peaceful rest, victims of sleep paralysis enter some kind of altered state where they have graphic hallucinations, often involving shadowy figures approaching them menacingly. One interview subject describes seeing aliens with TV static for skin, while another comes face-to-face with a black figure with glowing red eyes. During such occurrences, the victims are largely incapable of movement, meaning that there's no other option but to let it all play out and wait to wake up. Several of the individuals who share their stories talk about staying awake as much as possible in order to avoid the visions. Naturally, being exhausted all the time takes a toll in other areas of their lives. One woman believes it's literally demonic, citing the fact that her problem stopped as soon as she became a Christian. She isn't the only one who turned to religion for help.

Ascher cuts back and forth from his subjects being interviewed to graphic dramatizations of their hallucinations. The dream sequences are staged with all the intensity of a horror film, so as to convey just how frightening they are. Based on his work here, someone needs to hire Ascher to make a conventional fright flick, because he brings a visual style that is deeply unnerving. You wouldn't expect a documentary to be scary, but The Nightmare undoubtedly has moments that elicit a chill. Such scenes go a long way toward putting the viewer into the shoes of the interviewees. You walk away feeling great empathy for sleep paralysis sufferers, in addition to gaining an understanding of why they so fervently avoid bedtime.

The Nightmare isn't really interested in the science of its subject, which is slightly problematic. There's only a brief overview of what sleep paralysis is. The documentary doesn't offer much in the way of explanation for what causes it or how it might be treated. Simulated examples of the experience are sufficiently fascinating that you want to know much more about the nuts-and-bolts of the disorder. It's disappointing that most of the questions a viewer would reasonably ask are not addressed, or are addressed minimally.

Ascher's decision to keep things more on a personal level may slightly limit the impact of The Nightmare, but the chilling quality of the subjects' descriptions of sleep paralysis combined with the effectively eerie reenactments ensures that the documentary is worth seeing. Just as scary as the visions are the glimpses into the living hell these people are stuck in because of them. When you can't get any rest, it's a special kind of psychological torture; severe depression and anxiety are common. The Nightmare is a disturbing, intimate look at the messed-up tricks your mind can play on you.

( out of four)

Note: The Nightmare opens in theaters and on VOD June5.

The Nightmare is unrated, but contains language and intense scenes of terror. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.

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