How much The Nightmare affects you depends on your personal connection to your own nightmares, and in this specific case, to sleep paralysis. I'm saddled with the curse of forgetting every single detail of my dreams the second I wake up. Of course the upside of this problem is that I forget my nightmares as well. So as unsettling as the sleep paralysis and nightmare re-enactments were in The Nightmare, I had to draw upon my ability to empathize with the fear of the film's subject matters in order to feel a connection to the film.
Therefore, if you suffer from vivid nightmares, The Nightmare's detail-oriented and admittedly creepy visualizations of the horrifying experiences people who suffer from sleep paralysis relays to the filmmakers might be a much more effective and unsettling experience. If you yourself suffer from sleep paralysis, a condition where the person wakes up in a living dream state, unable to move while seeing unsettling images that range from featureless "shadow people" to creatures that eerily resemble a universal interpretation of extra terrestrials, you might end up shutting it off before you get to the end. In fact, the film's IMDB page is full of people who claim to have sleep paralysis, writing that they couldn't make it past the first ten minutes because the film's handling of the subject matter hit too close to home.
So, now that we establish that The Nightmare is an effective "non-fiction horror" film, what's wrong with it? Well, for starters, I would have trouble calling it a documentary, hence the non-fiction horror designation. The reason for this is not because Rodney Ascher's film relies as much on re-enactments as it does on on-screen testimonials from his subjects. There are many bona fide documentaries that use this approach; many Errol Morris projects come to mind. The problem is that Ascher is not really interested in finding out the scientific or even the spiritual meaning behind sleep paralysis and possible solutions to deal with it. There aren't any interviews with experts in the field, and even though there are brief moments that delve into its history and the way each culture explain it differently, the emphasis is clearly on the specific experiences the interview subjects have with sleep paralysis.
The reason for this is obvious; that's where the horror aspect of the film can be milked. With creepy voices coming out of cell phones, shadow people with red eyes stalking their paralyzed victims, the film's visual and narrative aesthetic is not that far removed from a Paranormal Activity movie. However, what separates The Nightmare from that crappy easy cash grab franchise is Ascher's seemingly genuine interest in listening to these horrifying stories without judgment, while relating to them as respectfully as possible, no matter how silly some of the stories might sound (One of the visions involves an old man accusing the dreamer of masturbating in his mother's sheets).
Ascher's previous documentary, the equally fascinating and frustrating Room 237, was about a bunch of The Shining fanatics' insanely convoluted theories about Kubrick's horror masterpiece. With that project, Ascher once again didn't let his presence known and wisely offered nothing judgmental or mocking about the theories. The problem this time around is that sleep paralysis is not as trivial as, well, The Shining trivia, and a more comprehensive approach to how it works and how it can be dealt with could have been an interesting addition.
As mentioned above, The Nightmare's re-enactments of the interview subjects' sleep paralysis episodes are handled in a very effective and moody way that takes full advantage of the film's obvious low budget. Apart from a couple of moments, Ascher doesn't rely on jump scares and puts a heavier emphasis on mood and tone, leaving us with a visually appealing non-fiction project that utilizes a lot of stark lighting and contrast. The 1080p transfer does a great job translating that look to home video.
It's weird to see a contemporary film offered on Blu-ray with only lossy Dolby Digital options, but that is what we get. Perhaps the film's low budget didn't allow for a DTS-HD mix on home video. That's a shame, because The Nightmare relies heavily on suspense via music and subtle uses of sfx, and an HD transfer could have boosted the experience. That being said, the 5.1 and 2.0 options both sound clean and are dynamic, with the 5.1 mix putting more emphasis on the score.
Deleted Scenes: Three scenes, each about two minutes in length, focuses on excised stories by three different interview subjects. Interesting stuff, but you can tell how they would have made the film feel that much more episodic.
We also get Two Trailers. One of them is dubbed "The Director's Cut", leading me to somehow think that this was the trailer Ascher approved of the most.
For fans of non-gory horror flicks that focus on tension and mood, The Nightmare is a much better choice than those awful Paranormal Activity movies. The fact that the stories are real, or at least real to the interview subjects, gives the film an edge that other fully fictionalized "real ghost stories" don't have. However, if you're looking for a more levelheaded and informative documentary on sleep paralysis, you will not find it here.