The Simpsons’ resident legal counsel Lionel Hutz once approached the bench saying, “we’ve got plenty of hearsay and conjecture. Those are kinds of evidence.”
The Nightmare is a purportedly some kind of documentary. However, it focuses exclusively on anecdotal accounts of a phenomenon called “sleep paralysis,” or “the transient inability to move or speak during the transition between sleep and wakefulness…”
As documentary film fodder, that’s undoubtedly scary subject matter.
While anecdote-based documentaries can work in some circumstances (say, survivors of the Cambodian genocide or other instances for which there’s a bulk of historical evidence), a film about a biological phenomenon needs talking heads to weigh in.
One subject reports he was met with “dismissal” when it took his problem to a medical professional. Another was told his nocturnal issues were stress-related.
But imagine for a moment a documentary about Elvis being alive (not to equate sufferers of sleep paralysis with that, it’s just an example). Imagine interviewing people from different countries who swear they’ve seen him. Then imagine not asking Presley’s next of kin or the coroner who signed the death certificate. Exactly what kind of documentary would that be?
In The Nightmare, the filmmakers focus on accounts of terrifying dreams and recreating them in as scary a way as possible. This is compelling for about 40 minutes, then tedium sets in as the sameness of the stories begins to take hold. (Dreams are second only to hearing about how drunk someone got the night before in terms of monotony).
The subjects include a guy raised in Vermont, who reports re: a terrifying incident he had, “I was a year and a half old probably.” It’s widely acknowledged in “childhood amnesia” that people cannot recall events before they were three and a half years old. This alone would likely disqualify one of the eight people in this documentary as being credible. One man claimed his friend started getting it when he explained the symptoms to her, while another reports saying “Jesus” proved efficacious. Make of that what you will.
A reviewer in The Times (UK) said The Nightmare was “an interesting if ethically dubious documentary.” That’s accurate save for the “interesting.”
What would’ve been interesting is cross-cultural folkloric traditions regarding sleep paralysis and the latest sleep science research in the field. The Nightmare is a not-very-good horror film masquerading as a documentary.
** (out of 5)