Sometimes I wonder how I've been watching horror movies for over thirty years and have never once had a screaming nightmare as a result. Unusually well-balanced, or no imagination? Sure I have the occasional bad dream, but it never includes images, sounds or characters from any of the films I've seen in the previous few days. I watch them, but they don't stay in my mind and trouble me after dark. Maybe I'm just incredibly lucky: there are people who are plagued by these things every night and have done so for decades.
Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare is a partially staged documentary which takes eight sufferers and mixes their to-camera retellings with creepy dramatisations of their dreams, in which various unholy monsters invade their bedrooms and taunt, threaten and terrify them. Featureless black silhouettes (either solo or in groups), alien-like entities not unlike the so-called Greys, red-eyed demons.... invariably accompanied by total paralysis, an inability to defend yourself except possibly through sheer force of will. What do these unwelcome visitors want? Our minds, our souls, our actual beings? Or are these creatures to us humans as we are to sparrows or ants: something entirely beyond our comprehension? It's never entirely clear what they are, what they want from us or where they're from: other dimensions, somewhere beyond death, the darkest recesses of our own imaginations?
Rodney Ascher's previous film was Room 237, in which people put forth elaborate (and frankly unlikely) theories as to the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Oddly, that's the kind of academic approach I would have liked from The Nightmare: what it doesn't do, and it would have been interesting to see, is to wheel on a professor of oneirology to try and explain what dreams and nightmares are in scientific terms. Instead it focusses on the accounts of a small number of people, mostly from the US (the sole British contributor is from Manchester), reconstructing their dreams as short, small-scale horror films.
Those dramatisations are, of course, pretty scary: they're happening to ordinary "real people" who live in the same world as we do, so there's the definite sense that this could easily happen to us. Entities like "Shadow Man" are terrifying on a far more primal level than a horror movie bogeyman who has a history and a backstory; these creatures are unfathomable to us, we can't communicate with them or reason with them, they just Are. It's effective, certainly, but it gives no explanation as to why the same phenomena are experienced around the world, what they actually are or what can be done to stop them. In addition, it features illustrative clips from feature films including the original A Nightmare On Elm Street (obviously). the bonkers Communion, and Insidious, one of the few movies that has forced me to keep lights on in the flat overnight - incidentally something that this film, despite its subject matter, did not achieve. (Incidentally, top-level arachnophobes should be aware that The Nightmare contains a sudden, frankly unnecessary closeup of a giant spider.)