The Nightmare suggests what might happen if David Lynch and Errol Morris collaboratively adapted Unsolved Mysteries for the cinema, as it’s an unconventional blend of talking-heads documentary and the sort of sensationalistic, hyper-stylized dramatic recreations that frequently appear in Morris’s work and that old television warhorse. Yet there’s also something irresolvable lurking at the margins, not quite in sight. The recreations gradually eclipse the talking heads in prominence over the course of the running time, the former representing an unusual merging of the literal-minded and the irrational. The premise is invitingly simple: People discuss their nightmares with director Rodney Ascher, who stages them as short horror films. Yet The Nightmare ineffably feels more dangerous than that description allows. Imagine watching a movie with an audio commentary featuring people who’ve been emotionally damaged by watching it, and you’d be close to capturing this film’s simultaneously invasive, empathetic tonality.
Ascher drops the audience right into the film’s world with little orientation. A few title cards offer ominous, slightly hokey facts about the general origin of the word nightmare (“mare” is old English for “evil spirit”), transitioning into imagery of a master movie set that contains many smaller sets within it. This acknowledgement of the contrivances at The Nightmare’s center don’t serve as a distancing device as it might in a more routine doc/fiction hybrid, instead pulling us deeper into the internal logic of the work, offering primer notes on the film’s own making that intuitively suggests a circular cultural chain reaction in which dreams become oration which then begat films about said dreams and oration. As in Ascher’s previous film, Room 237, the subject of obsession is complemented by a despairing attempt to process it, corral it, and somehow conquer it.
The opening shot takes us through the set, landing on the production of a fake news program, which segues into a dream recreation in which a young boy envisions the nightly news to be talking directly to him. Speaking overtop these images is the adult who once dreamed this, who appears to be in his 30s, which would mean that he was a child in the 1980s, though the staged footage features a heightened sense of iconography that suggests the 1950s, particularly in the choice of the mother’s white dress, which fosters a now-quaint idea of what a housewife, nurse, or cafeteria lady should wear. This subtle disjunction is telling of Ascher’s imagery, which is pristinely tactile in a fashion that conflicts with the vague intensity of nightmares yet is also subtly, hesitantly off. The filmmaker dramatizes this gentleman’s nightmare as well as a pop-culture-infused vision of what the mass collective might picture when hearing him speak of it.
This unresolved friction, between the specific and the general, between the iconographic and the intensely personal, is Ascher’s masterstroke. Throughout The Nightmare, one isn’t seeing as much as they might initially think they are. The filmmaker’s dream imagery isn’t of the heavily symbolic, studiously surreal variety, but of a quieter nature in which simple through lines are informed with a wrinkle of chaos. As Ascher moves from interview to interview, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s chosen people with the same recurring nightmare of faceless, corporeal shadows who approach them as they lay helpless in bed. They are victims of sleep paralysis, which involves intensely realistic nightmares that lead people to believe they’re losing their mind or in the midst of a demonic invasion, or comparative best case, that they’re never to have a restful night’s sleep again. A few victims hauntingly believe the dreams to be contagious. One young man, in particular, didn’t begin to have these nightmares until his girlfriend shared hers with him. (This revelation might lead certain members of the audience to wonder why they’re watching The Nightmare.)
Ascher has no interest in the objective facts of sleep paralysis; he’s wrestling solely with the emotional turmoil wrought by these nightmares, which he eventually reveals to occasionally have himself. Room 237 and The Nightmare collectively suggest a new kind of horror-film/essay that’s part group workshop, part conventional genre outing. Moving further into a fictional realm, Ascher reveals himself to be a confident orchestrator of set pieces. There’s a primal quality to his staging, an unsettlingly direct tendency to place the subject of a scene front and center in the frame. This placement fuses with the horror-noir colors (lots of evil reds and blacks) to suggest a dramatization of a perverted children’s storybook, which affirms the queasy rape subtext of many of the nightmares without reductively suggesting them to be about any one thing.
The Nightmare is a gripping, uniquely unmooring experience, though it could have been simpler and more elemental. Ascher eventually discusses with his subjects how the shadow figures of their nightmares have come to quietly influence society at large almost without comment, particularly in the horror-film genre, moving the picture into the Room 237 territory of examining the personal idiosyncrasies that can be culled from pop culture and vice versa. It’s fascinating material, linking A Nightmare on Elm Street and Insidious, among many others (It Follows would be another), together as visions derived from this weird mass nightmare, which is globally common and wide-ranging enough as to potentially serve as a gateway to revealing more about subterranean human fear. But, as presented, this material interrupts the personal, intimate flow of the film. This subject warrants its own movie, perhaps as the third part of an unusual and galvanizing trilogy retrospectively revealed to concern the ultimately unquantifiable horror film of our minds.