Wednesday, 19 August 2015


It's pretty rare for me to cover a documentary here at Hickey's House of Horrors (by pretty rare, read: I've NEVER covered one). At first this may seem obvious, but when you think about it, why wouldn't I cover a film just because the acts and subject matter are true? Surely there are few things as genuinely horrifying as real life? There are phenomena in this world that are more spine chilling than any campfire fiction.
One such phenomenon is the mysterious Sleep Paralysis. A medical condition endured by people all around the world, Sleep Paralysis sees sufferers experience extremely lucid and nightmarish visions while losing full control of their bodies. This is the subject of Stephen Ascher's controversial and critically acclaimed documentary, The Nightmare.


Dir: Rodney Ascher
Starring: Yatoya Toy, Nicole Bosworth, Siegfried Peters, Elise Robson, Steven Yvette, Age Wilson
Kate Angus, Forrest Borie, Christopher Bleuze-Carolan, Ana Malagon, Stephen Paynter, Jeff Reed, Korinne Wilson, Connie Yom

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but read on at your own risk.

Director Ascher sits down and speaks with eight individuals regarding their experiences with Sleep Paralysis. From a variety of backgrounds (although all but one of the subjects is a US resident), each speaks candidly about the physical symptoms that each bout brings, most notably the sensation of being awake and aware of their surroundings, yet utterly unable to move. However, beyond this initial simple symptom, they also recount several other side effects including some startling and downright terrifying sensory phenomena.
From eerie sounds to nightmarish visions, these are also recreated using actors and some impressive effects work.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of these accounts is the amount of shared details, including similar visions of looming, demonic shadow men. 
What could cause seemingly unrelated subjects to experience the same phenomena? Why do these people face a seemingly unending battle to rid themselves of their nightly torment? And are we, the unaffected, as safe as we think we are from Sleep Paralysis?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): First and foremost, the subject matter of The Nightmare is fascinating. Whether a legitimate medical condition or a strange form of mass hysteria (I'm leaning toward the former btw), whatever the truth is behind these experiences they are interesting at the very least, if not downright horrifying.
Ascher is a skilled documentarian, to which viewers of Room 237 — his study of Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece, The Shining — will attest. Here he wisely focuses on his eight subjects, giving each plenty of screentime to tell their stories and artfully interweaving them to stress key observations. These observations, plus the key moments of each individual's account are presented in fantastically stylised and wonderfully shot dramatisations, bathed in deep reds and blues and featuring unsettling black-clad nocturnal visitors. These scenes are genuinely frightening, even managing to squeeze in the odd jump scare and are the key element of the film that has seen it embraced by horror genre fans. The film's director of photography Bridger Nielson ensures that these sequences are evocative and emotive, using bold, visually striking colour and rich, dark shadows to capture an otherworldly fever-dream atmosphere. Should Ascher and Nielson ever join forces to create an out-and-out horror flick, these sequences are more than enough to suggest that they could conjure up genre gold. 
It may seem as if I'm over egging the pudding somewhat here, but trust me: these nightmare sequences are among the most terrifying moments I've ever seen committed to film.
The real-life subjects of the film are something of a mixed bag, some certainly have more credibility than others, but I have to applaud Ascher's decision to open the film up and include Stephen P, based out of Manchester, England. This gives the film a wider sense of scale, showing that Sleep Paralysis occurs in an array of locations across the globe. That isn't to say that the American interviewees are any less interesting, just that without Stephen's inclusion the film's focus could have felt very narrow. However, it is with the US subjects that the most entertaining moments come, specifically the frankly barking Forrest, whose hippyish stories feel like the product of a seriously bad trip, and the witty, world-weary Chris are definitely among the standouts.
In truth each of the eight: Forrest, Chris, Stephen, Ana, Kate, Korinne, Jeff and Connie, is a decent story-teller and, more importantly, each has an interesting tale to tell. As the viewer listens to their stories (edited together into a polished and easily comprehensible whole by Ascher along with Saul Herckis) it is impossible to avoid wondering 'what if?' — what if this is all true? What if this were to happen to you? And what if these shared experiences hint at something far darker under the surface?
The fear of Sleep Paralysis striking the viewer is certainly not aided by anecdotes stating that merely hearing about Sleep Paralysis has been enough to instigate cases, while theories for the deeper, darker meaning underneath are idly banded around by the victims and addressed by Ascher himself. These include some frightening similarities between accounts of Sleep Paralysis and alien abduction. Equally chilling are the supernatural inferences that maybe these shadow people could be demonic or malevolent forces from another dimension. Fans of horror fiction will lap these up with relish, another plus that may see the film find a more appreciative audience among genre fans than with those who expect  a more indepth scientific analysis of the condition.
I also enjoyed the brief segments that discussed possible historical cases of the disorder and their influence on mythology — such as succubi and night gaunts — and popular cinematic works. Films as varied as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Communion, Jacob's Ladder and Natural Born Killers are examined (albeit briefly) for sharing key elements with Sleep Paralysis sufferers' visions.
However you feel about the stories these individuals tell, whatever the reason, each is deeply tormented by their experiences and that real-life, human side to The Nightmare is the area in which it strikes deepest. The real anguish in their voices as they recount times in which they felt they were close to death while being menaced by shadowy visions is100 times more horrifying than any state of the art Hollywood CG could ever hope to be.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): As I said before, one of the largest problems with The Nightmare is that not all of the subjects come across as entirely reliable. From inferred hard-living to fantasy prone personality disorders via way of personal gain from their experiences, a handful of the subjects do lose some credibility under closer inspection. Of course these motives are fascinating in their own right, but they can prove detrimental to the message of the documentary and to any attempts to treat the Sleep Paralysis phenomenon as a serious subject.
Of course, another drawback to the documentary format and getting real people to describe their experiences in their own words is that the dialogue is not always too clear, the lines a little clunky and the delivery doesn't always sparkle like it does when coming from a trained actor. The sheer number of 'Like's and 'You know's makes this a far more natural sounding exchange but not everything that is said is as clear as it can be.
Finally, the documentary itself doesn't feature any input at all from qualified medical professionals, sleep therapists or even psychologists. While it's undoubtedly enthralling to listen to each of the subjects recount their experiences, it would have been nice to hear an expert in the field offer us some scientific reasons for the phenomenon alongside the more far-out speculation that is presented in the film. Ultimately it is better to look at the documentary as the stories of eight individuals rather than an all-encompassing in-depth look at the condition they all share. From this angle just about every complaint that a viewer may have is erased as the film becomes far more personal and with it, far more scary. 

THE VERDICT: A chillingly personal look at the plight of eight everyday people, The Nightmare is an enthralling and compelling film. With some genuinely horrifying recreations and a dark, disturbing subject matter, this is a film sure to haunt you in those moments before you drift off to sleep. Ok, it doesn't give us any real answers, but perhaps that is because there are no answers to be found. Few real-world horrors have the ability to chill like the stories of Chris, Stephen, Korinne and company. Horror fans will love this and even those who don't enjoy the genre may well find themselves being drawn in by the smart, stylish film making on display.

The film will be released in the UK on 9th October. In the meantime, check out 
The Nightmare's official Facebook page for more information.

UK readers planning to attend the Film4 FrightFest will be delighted to hear that the film will playing on Discovery Screen 1 on Saturday 29th August. 

Read my previous Film4 Frightfest special review, Suspension, here.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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