ROOM 237 (2012)
The famous horror movie about the IMDB forum that came to life.
THE NIGHTMARE (2015)
A documentary about sleep paralysis (and the unfathomable hallucinations that come with it) that is deeply effective at evoking the horror experienced by its sufferers, while having the certain side benefit of still not taxing its director too hard.
Spoiler alert for both films: N/A
Possibly the most shiftless documentarian of any note working today, Rodney Ascher has returned with another non-fiction film that, at the very least, concerns a theme worth discussing and features subjects who won't bore you to death with the cognitive disabilities that made them attractive to a documentary filmmaker in the first place. Yes, The Nightmare is pretty good. Sadly, however, we're obliged to begin where Ascher did. In 2012, he made a name for himself with the much-ballyhooed—and rather atrocious—Room 237.
Room 237, as you may recall, is a documentary—in the loosest sense of the term—dedicated to five worthless semiotic interpretations of Kubrick's The Shining: depending on whom you believe, The Shining turns out to be about the Holocaust, or about the genocide of Native Americans, or about Kubrick's guilt over faking the moon landing, or about Kubrick's boredom with making movies that were too perfect to be interesting, or about how Kubrick (apparently uniquely amongst all directors) indulged in a bit of impossible architecture for the Overlook Hotel set, rendering The Shining a modern retelling of the story of the Minotaur, because there can't be a window in one of the rooms and also that poster of a ski jockey looks like a bull, sort of, if you're high.
Ascher holds interviews—in an impossibly loose sense of that term—with all these theories' individual proponents. It's their words and their voices which make up Room 237's content. That's probably why Ascher makes it so that you can never tell their voices apart except for one—because it belongs to a woman—but this is okay, because neither I nor Ascher actually cared, anyway.
Separately, these goofballs narrate Ascher's movie, which it turns out is almost exclusively a montage of imagery from The Shining, from other Kubrick films, and from completely random films, arrayed in a manner that, were it any more slapdash, would read as outright dadaism. Murnau's silent Faust shows up in the mix, a lot, presumably because both Stanley Kubrick and the aged Faust were balding white men with beards; and when a clip from All the President's Men appears, it's because one of the narrators mentions that next to the theater he saw The Shining in, there was—get this—a parking garage.
Clearly, it's deep, rich symbolic relationships like these that truly drive the filmmakers' art. If a subtle sarcasm was the reason for it all, I remain unimpressed, for Ascher was evidently too busy vaguely juxtaposing his film clips against the narrators to engage with anything else at all. He's clearly dismissive of his subjects, but also (nearly) completely unwilling to actually mock them out loud, evidently trusting that their own words do a fine job of it already. Unfortunately, this arch-ironic distance does Room 237 vanishly few favors.
The point of the piece, that people can derive whatever meaning they want out of virtually anything, is well taken. And if nothing else, I have to be a little pleased with how the documentary subverts the stronger forms of auteur theory, in that it takes a film from one of the greatest auteurs of them all and shows how goofy an idea it is that every frame of any film, even a Kubrick film, could in every detail be the result of conscious decisions made by one man. Unfortunately, with its own nearly absent director, Room 237 devolves incredibly rapidly into an endless symposium, held by two dolts and three crazies, none of whom manage to be particularly interesting in either their denseness or their madness. I can think of almost nothing more offensively boring than going through a film frame by frame by frame by fucking frame, only to be shown that a paper holder, when positioned just so for 1/10th of a second next to a tertiary character, kind of makes him look like he has a big metal boner. But that is, perhaps, Room 237's very signature sequence.
What a joke this movie is: an avowed joke it may be, but also an awfully dull and unfunny one. Room 237 is unbelievably lazy, and somehow everyone bought it anyway.
Score, Room 237: 3/10
Now cleansed of the sins of the past, we arrive at Ascher's new documentary, The Nightmare. Happily, it represents a lot more effort than his last. However, since that's a bar that could be cleared simply by making a movie that had more than 4% original footage—or seemed at all concerned with its subject matter—that isn't the highest compliment I could give. But I mean it sincerely, and I have more nice things to say besides.
The Nightmare takes on eight sufferers of sleep paralysis. As you drift from wakefulness into sleep, your brain shuts down your motor control so that you don't act out your dreams. If you have sleep paralysis, however, it does this while you're still consciously aware. Often, the paralysis is accompanied by pain and other discomfort; and it comes with hallucinations, semi-lucid nightmares which manifest so vividly and forcefully, it is extremely hard to understand that they are not real—and nearly impossible to convince yourself they're not real in the moment you're experiencing them.
Every society with a sufficient history has recorded the phenomenon, and the nightmares associated with sleep paralysis are remarkably consistent across individuals and across cultures: distorted human figures, watching, waiting, and—worse—sometimes doing things to your body, as you struggle to move the smallest muscle in defense. The details change from person to person. Ascher's subjects often see demons. One sees aliens. Another sometimes sees her dead mother, though she can never be sure if she means well. But all of these aspects of the nightmare are elaborations upon what they call the Shadow Men. In their simplest form, they appear as distended, black, featureless shades, slithering unknowably across their field of vision.
The commonalities are so fundamental and the experience so traumatizing that, out of Ascher's sample group, many of them (perhaps counterintuitively) deny that their nightmares are the symptoms of an organic disease. More come to believe in their visions as religious or supernatural proof—as revelations of an underlying reality that others cannot see.
This latter impression is, naturally, not explicitly endorsed by the film. Instead, it's only heavily, unmistakably implied. In truth, The Nightmare means to be a horror film proper more than it ever intends to be a documentary. Still, in each mode, it has its weaknesses.
It's easy to concede that Ascher was working under a handicap; after all, there is no medically recognized explanation of the cause of sleep paralysis, and the theories that exist are extremely dry (neurotransmitter this, parasomnia that). Nonetheless, The Nightmare is marked by such a disregard for science, and such an interest in mystical explanations, that the impression of an external reality to its subject's experience is hard to avoid. The idea comes into play early, when one of Ascher's subjects relates how his very first paralytic nightmare came immediately after being told about the condition by a friend, like sleep paralysis was a haunted video tape. Ascher offers a gaudy infographic at this juncture, demonstrating how the contagion of sleep paralysis might spread. He wants you to recognize that, by watching his film, you've made yourself vulnerable too. It's the kind of ludicrously, laughably obvious horror tactic that I thought went out of vogue in the early 1960s. Ascher stops short only of offering a free coffin with your rental, should you happen to drop dead of fright. (Of course, as it's also more than a little cute, I'm compelled to approve.)
I assume that doing no scientific research and relying upon the lay expertise of his interviewees also made things much easier for Ascher, keeping his documentary small and contained. Still, as expanding its scope might arguably have distracted from Ascher's focus, I suppose there's no use complaining that he decided to direct a movie instead of a Wikipedia article.
Rather more than most documentaries, The Nightmare really is an actual movie. The most notable thing about it is Ascher's decision to reenact his subjects' hallucinations. It's gimmicky, all right—it is gimmicky as all hell—but it's an exciting gimmick, charged with the frisson of real transgression by the notion that these sequences faithfully capture for our entertainment the intimate torments of actual people.
Luckily, it never also seems exploitative, although it easily could have. You see, Ascher's subjects usually first obtained any confirmation that they weren't suffering alone through horror movies. Many of them even found a measure of consolation in the cinematic expression of their nightmares. The films discussed include 2011's haunted house/possession tale, Insidious ("it was okay," one subject says, and I agreed), as well as 1989's daffy alien abduction flick Communion (which another subject praises, and which I would not remotely recommend, although it is plenty better than Dark Skies). Obviously, Ascher's subjects look upon 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street with a respect approaching reverence. (Ascher also treats with pre-cinematic evocations of sleep paralysis; these antique works of painting and sculpture offer imagery that is possibly even more unsettling.)
The mere idea that such things were seen by real humans is already enough to make The Nightmare scary. Sometimes, the victims' reconstructed hallucinations are as genuinely terrifying as just about any "real" horror movie (they are certainly made with a working knowledge of horror vocabulary, particularly enamored, I think, with its European branch). The absolute worst of it comes during the story of how a girlfriend's more ordinary night terror happened to mirror one of our subject's simultaneous, paralytic nightmares with a truly upsetting accuracy. I'll just say I had to keep some distance between me and my cats after this scene.
What these vignettes are not, however, is terribly expensive, and rarely are they terribly convincing, either. Let's not mince words: The Nightmare is fucking cheap. So cheap that you can routinely see the seams of the Shadow Men costumes.
Ascher does know this, and evinces true cunning for the first time in his documentary career, when he shoots the transition between two hallucinations in one continuous take, focusing upon the featured extra in the chintzy black body stocking as he dons additional costume elements while still in full view of the camera and walking between his marks on two separate sets. Its a ballsy move, but it works: Ascher simply throws his hands up, simultaneously admitting to his own stagebound theatricality while emphasizing the awful subjective reality of the experience for the ones who actually experienced it. It immediately banishes the negativity that might have seeped in by this point—that is, the suspicion that you paid good money to watch a long episode of Sightings.
But the lingering horror of The Nightmare is not to be found in its filmmaking, anyway. It's in the eyes and voices of its unfortunate subjects. Even when they tell stories that sound a little too perfect to be the unalloyed truth, you get the sense that there's still no dishonesty to them, but rather that they embellish unconsciously, desperate to get across even a small fraction of the terror they experience on a nightly basis. None of Ascher's chosen subjects are unscarred; only a very few seem even basically okay; and some have clearly gone a certain kind of mad. When we're introduced to Chris, a New Yorker in his late 20s or early 30s—with a slight resemblance to no less a figure than Ethan Hawke—we are encouraged to see him as the most well-adjusted person in the movie. By the end, we realize he may well be the least. The most frightening thing about it, though, is that he should be even crazier. You begin to imagine yourself in these poor bastards' beds, and wonder if you could bear it for just a week, let alone a lifetime. Or, worse, you might conclude that you might bear it for exactly that—one lifetime, only not a very long or happy one.
Score, The Nightmare: 8/10