Don't point your video cameras at Judge William Lee. You won't like what you see.
Our review of The Phantom Of The Opera (1962), published October 18th, 2005, is also available.
"Forget your fear. Forget your shame. Just leap in and never wake up."—Natalya
Nightmare is a surprising little horror film that leaves an impression. First-time feature director Dylan Bank and co-screenwriter Morgan Pehme present us a diabolically intriguing premise and then take the material in an infuriating and surreal direction. Nevertheless, the movie really works thanks to a fearlessly devious explanation that is a small slice of brilliance.
A hotshot film student (actually, an actor-turned-director) and an aspiring actress have a one-night stand in a strange apartment. The next morning, they awake to find a video camera pointed at them. Playing back the tape, they see themselves brutally murdering a group of people. Neither of them has any memory of committing this act, no evidence of the crime can be seen nor they do not recognize any of the victims. When the director's new project is rejected by his classmates, he pitches them an idea for a horror film based on the murder mystery he's currently living. They love it and decide to make his movie as the class project even though there isn't a script. As more mysterious videos show up, the director uses them as reference to stage the scenes in his movie hoping to discover the real killer in the process.
Even before the movie takes some mind-bending twists, you will have to grant Nightmare your generous suspension of disbelief. The characters are all a little too unbelievable, or blatantly stereotypical, to ground the movie in any sort of reality. The personalities that make up the film class are as varied as any ensemble cast of a TV high school sitcom and they're just as believable. Those supporting players include: the pretty girl, the plain girl, the jock and the geek. Most amusing, or bewildering, is a professor who looks like he walked off the cover of a romance novel and sounds like the world's most supportive drama teacher. The opening party scene where everyone is fawning over their genius classmate lays it on just a bit too thick. If I were stuck at a party with these people, I'd want to deliberately puke on their carpet.
Though the scenes in the film class didn't do it for me, the movie really works when it focuses on the mystery of the videotaped slayings. The two lead actors give such unbridled and convincing performances that it makes up for the lackluster material that pads out the script. Jason Scott Campbell (The Final Patient) brings intensity to the role of the unnamed director that is slightly over-the-top but captivating. He is arrogant, over-confident, maniacal yet sensitive—sort of like Dawson from Dawson's Creek crossed with Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. If his character had been reworked as a driven, mature artist rather than a young film student perhaps it would have been more believable. The other strong performance comes from Nicole Roderick, as the actress Natalya, and she is as strong as she is beautiful. When we first meet Natalya, she talks about how an actor must embody a character without shame or fear. Over the course of the movie, she shows that this isn't mere lip service. Natalya is put into several dangerous situations but she doesn't automatically submit to the role of the victim.
The real director of the film, Dylan Bank, manages to infuse considerable tension into the action scenes. The violence is chaotic and bloody. The sex uncomfortably suggests violence. Several sequences plunge Jason's character into a nightmarish realm and these moments are so gritty and chilling that they do seem to tap into universal spaces of dread. The movie really has something going for it as a thriller. The behind-the-scenes drama between the protagonist and his frustrated crew also contains a few good moments, so it's all the more unfortunate that the attempts at humor are misfires.
Nightmare is the kind of mystery you have to ride out before you can understand it. The story jumps around in a manner that keeps viewers somewhat disoriented. On my first viewing, there was a moment when I wondered if my DVD was defective because the sequence of events wasn't matching up in a way that made sense to me. Deliberately or not, there are scenes missing from the narrative. Notably, we don't see why Natalya agrees to play herself in the student film recreation of a mysterious video that implicates her as a murderer. Still, the story goes in a fresh and ingenious direction that makes it worth the effort.
The DVD presentation from MPI is satisfactory. The image is clean of specks and debris; the picture is reasonably sharp. The colors are a touch warm in general and the skin tones are slightly redder in darker scenes. Exterior and daylight scenes are bright enough but a few of the moodier settings—in the students' makeshift studio or at nighttime—seem inadequately lit. The 5.1 surround mix promised on the packaging appears to be an error but, thankfully, the stereo audio mix that does exist on the disc works fine for the movie.
The bonus material includes an alternate ending, which only has a minor change, and a trailer. The interview with Dylan Bank and Morgan Pehme is worth watching to hear them explain their intentions. With beers in plain sight, the pair may seem too relaxed but they're the first to describe their film as a fun slice of horror entertainment rather than a work with bigger pretensions. After seeing what they've pulled, you may want to wash it down with a cold beverage too.
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