The Nightmare

The Nightmare ★★★★

Rodney Ascher is, I think, a little older than me, and yet his films make me feel like I've travelled back to my childhood. It was a remarkable time, the 1990s, a time where that brief interregnum in between Vast Wars for the Future of Western Civilization led the entire world to shrug and go "Shall we get back into Bigfoot again?" I do understand why people see that less as a lost idyll and more of a global collapse into idiocy, by the way. It's just that the other day I saw a kid of about eight or nine suddenly bug his eyes out with rage and start throwing things at three teenage Muslim girls walking past him. When you see that, it's hard not to yearn for the days when people were scared of monsters from space, rather than their neighbours.

So The Nightmare is another film about subjectivity from the director of Room 237, complete with some of the funny-creepy retro-TV trimmings of his entertaining short The S From Hell. I don't think exploring subjectivity is a bad thing for a documentary to do, frankly - Errol Morris has made a career out of it, and there are a lot of war documentaries like Winter Soldier and Censored Voices based around testimony.

Some, not all, of the criticism of Room 237 seemed to assume Ascher must endorse the theories he's showing, otherwise why show them? I think that film supplies its own answer, and it's an answer The Nightmare refines. It is divided into several chapters but it really has three movements. In the first highly subjective segment, Ascher's interviewees recount their early experiences with sleep paralysis, a harmless but completely terrifying condition. In the second, they discover, either through media or medical attention, why they have these dreams. After this brief anchor in objective fact, act three sees them start to draw their own conclusions about their condition, which draws some of them back out into unreason and subjectivity.

So what we're watching is the human mind encounter an unexplained event, learn about it, then try and integrate it into their pre-existing belief structures. Sleep paralysis nightmares are eerily consistent across eras and cultures, and the reason for this is obviously because ultraterrestrials have been trying to condition us into accepting their imminent invasion through our dreams. But in the past, they have been interpreted as omens, demons visiting during the night, or more recently alien abductions. As you'd expect from a Rodney Ascher film, the interviewees often see their experiences echoed in films, some of which are expected (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and some of which are clearly more personal (Natural Born Killers).

Ascher brilliantly constructs his films as a series of parallel universes which bleed into each other. We expect documentaries to use some visual trick to differentiate their interviews from their reconstructions, for example, but the use of a consistent visual style, as well as allowing the interviewees to re-enact their own nightmares, makes it feel as if the realities of the films are collapsing into each other even before it starts giving the fourth wall a going-over. And the more ambiguous it gets, the scarier it gets, although for me there was nothing more skin-pricklingly horrid as the phone call one interviewee received earlier on.

At one point the camera moves back to reveal Ascher himself, but the mise-en-scene - gently swaying hand-held, discomforting backwards movement - makes it feel less like a reassuring, authorial presence and more like the unsettling reveal of yet another level of reality underpinning this movie. I honestly wouldn't have been surprised if the camera moved back another few feet to reveal someone interviewing Ascher, then back to show someone interviewing him, then another person behind him, and on and on, like some lost collaboration between MC Escher and William Greaves.

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