If there are few things less interesting than hearing other people talk about their dreams, then director Rodney Ascher has pulled off something uniquely impressive, if still somewhat overstretched, in “The Nightmare,” an intriguing documentary-horror hybrid centered around the experiences of eight individuals who have suffered from the mysterious phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Mixing talking heads, surreal bedtime re-creations and shamelessly assaultive scare tactics, Ascher’s playful, visually inventive sophomore feature isn’t at the same level as “Room 237,” his brilliant 2012 inquiry into the mystique of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” But it shares with its predecessor a warped affection for eccentric storytellers and a desire to give vivid cinematic form to their darkest imaginings, if that is indeed what they are.
This is a film that features absolutely zero doctors or professionals. Why?
Two reasons I guess - - - first, I thought that rather than to stretch ourselves too thin trying to be a an encyclopedic overview of Sleep Paralysis (there's a lot of science and medical perspectives we could've explored, but also there's a ton of history you can trace in art, mythology, and literature) I wanted to focus on what I found most compelling - 1st person eyewitness testimony. I would say what we're doing here is something more akin to 'case histories' or storytelling.
Also, although there is science about what's happening in your body during an episode, there's not much to explain the question I find most interesting: why people see the things they see - and that's as true for dreams and psychedelic hallucinations as it is for sleep paralysis. I wanted to let people speculate about what shadow people are (and especially whether or not they're "real"), but I thought the people I wanted to hear from most were the ones actually seeing them.