The Nightmare (2015) dir. Rodney Ascher

6/5-6/6 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre


“Documentary” doesn’t quite seem like the right word for the films of Newton native Rodney Ascher. It’s where you would file his work in a video store (if those even still existed), and, in broad strokes, it fits: what little output he’s produced so far largely centers on real people, speaking (ostensibly) the truth about their lives, views, and experiences. Yet, when one actually watches his films, it becomes harder to justify comparisons to other examples of the genre. His nine-minute student film The S from Hell centers on eyewitness accounts of the inexplicable, existential terror induced by the ‘60s era Screen Gems television logo, contrasted with a collage of reenactments, stock footage, and movie clips. Ascher’s feature debut, Room 237, expanded this approach to a dazzling degree, this time turning the focus on the conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (it was also this critic’s pick for the best film of 2013). In both of these films, Ascher marries the quirky talking-head approach of Errol Morris with the subversive cut-up aesthetic of Negativland or TV Carnage. The results feel less like a series of interviews, and more like a probe into his subjects’ subconsciouses. David Attenborough films landscapes; Rodney Ascher films brains.

Ascher’s latest, The Nightmare, takes him deeper (and more literally) into this territory than ever before. This time, the subject is the mysterious phenomenon of sleep paralysis, in which the sufferer finds themselves stuck between sleep and wakefulness– aware of their surroundings, but unable to move. The wrinkle is that, despite the state of semi-consciousness, dreams still find their way in, leading to bizarre, frequently terrifying hallucinations. Ascher alternates between firsthand accounts of the condition and dramatizations of his subjects’ visions– which, judging from the trailer, look completely fucking terrifying. Call it a documentary, call it a horror movie, or call it something new, because, from the looks of it, Ascher just might be carving out a whole new genre.

The Nightmare
dir. Rodney Ascher
105 min.

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