Siegfried Peters as Chris
Steven Yvette as Shadow Man
I’ll happily borrow the tag-line from Wes Craven’s classic The Last House on the Left when discussing The Nightmare, a forthcoming film from director Rodney Ascher.
“It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.”
Thing is – it’s not just a movie. This is for real.
You’ll find yourself immediately engaged in this film – wondering aloud if indeed it is actually a documentary – with re-creation footage, or if it’s a very well-acted pseudo-Lake Mungo-style film (if you’ve not seen that eerie film, check it out), made to seem like the real thing.
As the movie continues and then the credits roll, you’ll realize that is a for-real documentary, exposing the odd details and the strange things which a multitude of people experience in the helpless state of sleep paralysis. Further on-line research confirms that it is, indeed, a documentary.
The film follows the tall-tale (but again, real) telling by eight sufferers of this disease/condition. Most of their experiences are unique (although there is the shared arrival in many of their episodes of “Shadow People”) and all of them are terrifying. I don’t know which was scarier, the actual victims telling their stories, or the extremely well-produced “re-creation” segments – straight out of the old television program, Unsolved Mysteries with an unnerving hint of the atmosphere of the classic In Search Of with the late Leonard Nimoy.
The film shows several behind-the-scenes bits of their own re-creation filming. And it’s an interesting way to keep the viewer on edge and aware that this is actually real, just produced to help tell the story. One particular scene shows one of the “Shadow People” actors in one scene. They then swiftly move to another portion of the set (the camera follows) and is quickly re-dressed by a production assistant and then moves into the next scary scene – as another version of these shadow-y horrors.
The experiences of the subjects vary from the aforementioned “Shadow People”, to actual paralysis, to some pseudo-The Entity sexual violation, possible alien abduction scenarios and the up close and personal whispers of demons in one of the subject’s ears. It runs the gamut, so the terror for the viewer is equal opportunity scary. There are even some spider scares. Ick.
The most in-depth – and thus engaging – story is that of Chris (portrayed in the re-enactments by Siegfried Peters). He began experiencing these horrors as a child (as did so many of the other sufferers) and by adulthood, he was dealing with actual physical pain from these manifestations. One of his other many stories involved a kid from his childhood – in a very well-shot (and quite different look from the rest of the film) scene straight out of Flatliners. Also, particularly frightening was the description of pain he endured on his genitals. And finally, his reveal of “the red-eyed cat” tale was goose-bump inducing.
This is probably not a perfect choice for the hours prior to your bedtime, as several of the film’s participants discuss how they first heard of such events at some point in their life and then, the same night – experienced these horrific visions/paralysis first-hand. So it seems that the power of suggestion is also in play in these situations.
I myself have never experienced such events, so it’s difficult to completely understand the perils and pains of sleep paralysis. However, director Rodney Ascher (the guy behind the awesomeThe Shining-documentary, Room 237) seamlessly takes you into the stories of these eight people, going back and forth from like-minded experiences (those pesky “Shadow People”) to the way-out there stories – like one of the subjects dealing with his very first memory – as he lay in his crib. I won’t reveal it, but it had something to do with tickling. Ewww.
Any good documentary avoids judgement. On that level, The Nightmare also succeeds. The subjects are treated with dignity and their stories are really heard (apparently, director Ascher has experienced sleep paralysis himself). It’s an unsteady relief as well as a slight frustration that there are no answers by the film’s conclusion. It leaves you with a genuine uneasiness – not just because of the images Ascher has thrown at you, but because we still don’t know (not just us, but the population at large) exactly what this phenomenon is. As the film explains, every culture/country has their own version of the anomaly and the supposed “monsters” who cause it or are part of the experience. Is it a disease? A mental illness? Stress-related? A figment of the imagination? Or are these real creatures from other dimensions or worlds? Hell if I know. And neither does the film. More than answers, it offers intrigue, food for thought, fuel for debate and some honestly thrilling chills.
My only complaint is that later in the film, we get a closer look at some of the “Shadow People” and these close-ups (revealing the shape of facial features underneath the black “skin” the re-creation actors are wearing) takes away some of the awe and terror they carry earlier in the film. They’ve got shape now and that kind of ruins the illusion. But it’s a small, picky thing.
I recommend The Nightmare. Despite the fact that I watched it late at night – just before bedtime – I don’t recall having any particular nightmares, any tossing and turning or problems sleeping – eventually waking up in a pool of sweat. Nope. Frankly, based on the images in this film, I was expecting such reactions. But, if you’re someone who easily allows creepy images to heavily imprint upon you – give this a watch earlier in the day. In the light. With the birds chirping. It’s a quality film, with real scares, real people and subject matter which was somewhat unfamiliar to me. So on top of being entertained, I learned something too!
And I’ll put it out there right now – just to cover my own butt. If indeed, this turns out to be an actual piece of fiction, advertised and listed as a documentary (a la The Blair Witch Project), I will be the first to say that the actors involved (playing the subjects) all deserve high praise and recognition come awards-time. But that’s just an “in-case baby”, as I do believe it’s a real documentary.
And truly, that’s even scarier.
The Nightmare was deservedly nominated for an audience award at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival.