If you’ve ever known anyone who’s experienced sleep paralysis and heard them describe what it’s like, you know the subject is pretty terrifying. You wake up in bed, fully conscious, but you can’t move a single muscle. You start to feel like you’re suffocating, and you panic. If you’re unlucky, you may begin to hallucinate; see menacing shadowy figures approaching you while you still lack the power to move or even cry out. It’s chilling stuff.
What are the mechanisms of sleep paralysis? How much of the populace is affected? Are there ways to prevent or deal with it? The Nightmare gives you none of these answers. Instead, the entire 90 minute runtime is devoted to a parade of unrelated people describing their first hand experiences with sleep paralysis, and dramatized re-enactments of their tales. For 20 or 30 minutes, this works really well. The dramatized footage paired with the first hand accounts are very well done and truly terrifying, if a little heavy on jump scares. But soon, you start to crave more substance as a viewer. On one hand, the eerie similarity of the people’s stories (the descriptions of the “shadow people” hallucinations especially) is frightfully intriguing. But this makes you crave more information from objective sources. Having just one doctor on hand to explain the theories or causes of this phenomenon would have been extremely welcome, not just to flesh out our own knowledge but the break up the monotony.
Like the director’s own Room 237, The Nightmare has a stellar concept but is simply too laser focused and bare-bones to achieve greatness. It’s shockingly redundant at times – with some of the talking heads describing identical experiences more than once in the same movie. As a 30 minute short, or a broader feature, this could have been brilliant. If you yourself have ever experienced sleep paralysis though, it’s probably worth watching just for added context and camaraderie.