It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"To die - to sleep.
To sleep - perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause." - Hamlet, Act III, scene 1
What is so striking is the similarity of the stories. People describe lying in bed, awake, unable to move. There is a tingling sensation, like static, like nerve endings shorting out from overuse. People describe a feeling that something is approaching, from behind them, or towards them. Along with that approach comes an overwhelming sense of evil. Dark amorphous shadow figures appear, somewhat human-like, leaning over the person lying in bed, appearing at the door frame. Sometimes the dark figure wears a hat. Something terrible is going to happen and the person is unable to move or to react. This is the experience commonly known as "sleep paralysis" and is the subject of Rodney Ascher's engaging horror-film-like documentary, "The Nightmare."
Ascher does not focus on the many theories as to what causes sleep paralysis (stress, interrupted REM sleep). The theories come up, but only through the voices of those who experience the phenomenon. There are no official talking heads from the scientific community, showing us diagrams of sleep cycles or brain waves. Instead, "The Nightmare" is filled with people from different regions of the country (and the world) telling their stories, accompanied by creepy re-enactments of their sleep paralysis nightmares. Using a horror-film color palette (the shadows are "Lost Highway"-thick) and horror-film camera techniques, Ascher plunges us into the actual visions that sleep paralysis creates: the moving silhouette figures, the darkness, the static. The sense of terror is palpable.
The people telling their stories are filmed in their own homes, but with off-kilter angles, and extremely low lighting, making their surroundings look grim and dark. The shadows encroach on all sides. One guy stops telling his story and peers behind his shoulder, freaked out for a second. With one interview subject, Ascher has placed the camera in the next room, peeking through the doorway, an abyss of blackness in between us and the subject. The overall effect gives the sense of a sleep disorder so overpowering that it has changed people's lives forever. One guy admits that one vision was so frightening that "I immediately stopped being an atheist." Some have come to the conclusion that the terror will eventually get so intense that they will die from it. They all look haunted and obsessed. They try to draw pictures of what they saw, scribbling images out when it doesn't look right. They are not believed when they tell their stories. These are not "bad dreams," they are something else entirely. The quotes accumulate throughout the film, bringing with them a sense of dread all their own: "I thought I was having a stroke." "I felt a presence next to me trying to take my soul out." "And that is when the Shadow Man came towards me." "If I could describe what Death would feel like - it's icy-cold, dark, evil, and it's watching me."