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Nightmare

Sleep paralysis demons deserve a better fictional riff than “Nightmare,” a bland horror movie about a terrifying and possible experience. Even just learning about sleep paralysis can spread its effects, as provoked by Rodney Ascher’s 2015 collection of real-life bedtime episodes, “The Nightmare,” one of the scariest documentaries ever made. But for all the possibilities of illustrating the clutches of sleep paralysis, in which one can see themselves sleeping and unable to move while a shadowy presence haunts the room—freaky, right?—“Nightmare” is a bland Shudder entry, with only a simmering anger to make it notable. 

Elli Harboe (“Thelma”) has to work overtime as Mona, a 25-year-old woman suddenly affected by sleep paralysis that becomes progressively violent to herself and others. She flails through a script that gives Mona lackluster problems in the daytime, like a relationship with a dud of a boyfriend, Robby (Herman Tømmeraas), who works a mysterious job and doesn’t help with the necessary restoration for their newly acquired but run-down apartment. Mona’s attempts to sleep have her screaming, sometimes wailing on Robby, and sleepwalking with little sense of reality. Despite the danger this unpredictable psychosis should create, "Nightmare" becomes monotonous, and Harboe's inherent force can only do so much to punch up its mild nerves. 

There’s one compelling fire burning under writer/director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s story, and it’s that of a woman’s right to have an abortion. Shortly after Mona and Robby move into the place, she finds out she’s pregnant. Mona knows that she wants to have an abortion—she's not ready for motherhood—but various male forces in her life threaten her free will. Even the original doctor who reveals her pregnancy and offers an abortion tries to guilt trip her with mental images of the fetus’ growth. And because she doesn’t want to be challenged at home, she doesn’t want to tell Robby about it. 

A demon begins terrorizing Mona at night, and it's the cheesiest embodiment—the Mare is a shirtless Robby, brooding as if he were a Cullen vampire sibling. This demon wants her to have this baby. On the page, “Nightmare” is really about a woman’s choice, and this film might warrant a look if movies were worthwhile solely on the courage of their convictions.

In execution, Rasmussen’s story is a set of weak arcs, including the later involvement of an eager sleep doctor (Dennis Storhøi) who knows more than he’s letting on about Mona’s conditions but also the apartment she now lives in. Don’t get excited when he mentions his device that can use signals from the brain to illustrate dreams to voyeurs—this intriguing bit of technology is hardly used. His purpose is horror didacticism, to offer information (yes, their movie has a lecture defining nightmares), and to face danger. 

“Nightmare” runs through its tropes as if executing an exercise but without feeling. Far too often, the movie has sequences where you can’t tell if Mona is dreaming or actually awake, and it does so without carrying over overall suspense. “Nightmare” is one of those horror ventures whose terror doesn't build so much as insist, taking down the pacing with it. And when there are certain would-be shocking revelations in the story, including tidbits about neighbors who are suffering in a different way, they hold little weight. 

Given how much it emphasizes atmosphere, Rasmussen's directorial debut could have even had a shot as a haunted home movie—the sound mixing even pushes the buzzing of flies to create the sense of … something, somewhere … rotting. (It’s nearly constant from start to finish and one of the rare aesthetic ideas that isn’t annoying but admirable). In later passages, “Nightmare” has little strength as a frayed relationship tale, despite how it shoehorns screaming matches between Mona and absent partner/wannabe father Robby, ruminating on how their bond was in danger long before the Mare appeared. 

Here is a slow-burn movie in search of a scarring image. But it just doesn’t have a high standard for scares, whether it’s the effort put into making those dreams unsettling (a cheesy jump scare again, yawn) or the presentations of this demon. Mona's story finally gets its scarring image in the final two shots, one which could only come from the anger in its storytelling and also would never be allowed by a mainstream Hollywood producer. It’s too bad the way to this jaw-dropping end is such a snooze. 

Now playing on Shudder.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Nightmare movie poster

Nightmare (2023)

Rated NR

100 minutes

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