Review first published (in a different form) by Sight and Sound
The first thing we see in The Nightmare is the darkened interior of what will turn out to be a TV studio. As ‘Chris C.’ describes how, when he was just five, he saw a news anchor address him directly by name through the TV screen, the camera tracks from the shadows to the news desk, and the anchor does just that, even as a little boy stands before an old television set, watching (as we do).
This disorienting introduction, combining an interview (with a real, if partially anonymised subject) and a stylised, literally mediated reconstruction of what he is saying, turns out to be programmatic for the latest feature from the maker of Room 237. For as eight people are interviewed about the sleep paralysis that has long afflicted them, director Robert Ascher (himself a sufferer) also reproduces their described experiences on screen, blurring the boundaries between documentary material and vividly, often terrifyingly realised horror tropes.
“It’s a kind of horror that is worse than in the movies,” comments Connie Y. – and yet Ascher’s interviewees keep returning to horror films (in particular A Nightmare On Elm Street, Communion, Jacob’s Ladder and Insidious) as analogues, even inspirations for their nocturnal hallucinations, even as Ascher makes his own movie of their night terrors. The result is an unusually frightening documentary – and given the insistence of Jeff R. that sleep paralysis is a ‘sleep-transmitted disease’ that you can contract (as he did) merely by being told about it, Ascher’s film holds out the sinister promise of triggering a new outbreak amongst its own viewers.