Nightmare has an unfortunately generic title, but it’s the word in its most literal usage, referring to the “Mare”—a creature from folklore thought to torment sleepers. In Norwegian writer-director Kjersti Helen Raasmussen’s new film, coming to Shudder this week, it takes the form of a particularly nasty dream demon.
Nightmare has certain elements in common with Rosemary’s Baby and A Nightmare on Elm Street (especially part five, The Dream Child), but it’s also its own murky beast. It begins as Mona (Thelma’s Eili Harboe) and Robby (Herman Tømmeraas) move into a spacious but dilapidated apartment they’re only able to afford because of Robby’s new job… and the unavoidable fact that the last tenant (“a pregnant woman” is all we learn about her) died on the premises. The film opens with text explaining what “sleep paralysis” is, so it’s no surprise when Mona starts having dreams so vividly awful she’s afraid to close her eyes at night. It doesn’t help that the new apartment, which she’s renovating solo due to Robby’s hectic schedule, envelops her in a hostile environment, complete with unsettling sounds both inside (lots of buzzing flies) and outside (neighbors who are arguing whenever their baby isn’t screaming).
Also, Mona herself is somewhat emotionally adrift; she’s 25 and the fact that she hasn’t figured out a career yet is starting to bother her, especially since Robby is becoming a workaholic. She and Robby aren’t married or even engaged, and he’s started dropping hints about wanting to start a family. Her night terrors, which involve erratic bouts of sleepwalking, get worse—and star a figure that looks like Robby but with perceptible menace oozing out of every pore.
When Mona finds out she’s pregnant, Nightmare adds another layer of ickiness to its story; while we’ve seen many tales of evil creatures that target expectant mothers and/or newborns, it’s less common to follow a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant and chooses (after some invasive pushback from her doctor) to get an abortion instead. There are complications, since a baby is very much a part of the Mare’s plan for Mona, so she seeks help from a different medical arena: a sleep specialist named Aksel (Dennis Storhøi) who not only understands what she’s going through, but also has experimental technology that just might allow Mona to slip out of the Mare’s grasp.
The pieces are in place for a compelling and disturbing tale told very much from a woman’s point of view, and Harboe makes good on the promise she showed in Thelma with another emotionally wrenching performance. Unfortunately, Nightmare isn’t quite able to execute its ideas in a satisfying way. A lot of the movie takes place in Mona’s surreal dream world, and the story drags at times even when she’s not sleeping; being confined to the dreary apartment building doesn’t help keep things exciting. There’s an element of intrigue that comes with Mona’s neighbors, and there are hints there’s more to the story than just Mona’s experiences. But for all its hat-tips to Rosemary’s Baby, Nightmare never explores much of a conspiracy angle, or digs into why Mona and Robby’s apartment building has such sinister bones, or even fleshes out Aksel in any interesting way. Perhaps that’s intentional, to keep Mona’s story more intimate. But the truth is there’s nothing as horrifying in Mona’s dreams as the way she’s treated by her OB/GYN when she’s wide awake.
Nightmare arrives on Shudder September 29.
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