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{BFI London Film Festival 2022} Nightmare

October 16, 2022

Ambitious pregnancy horror, Nightmare loses focus to pay homage to various cult classics, failing to deliver in a weak third act.

Showing at the London Film Festival, writer-director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s feature debut incorporates many familiar tropes, hinting at several sub-genres at play. Centered on the struggles of womanhood and motherhood, the plot of Nightmare also delves into Northern European folklore with the mare, a demon known for “riding” its victims in their sleep.

NightMare challenges harmful narratives about motherhood

The film opens with the couple Mona (Eili Harboe) and Robbie (Herman Tømmeraas) eager to take the next step in their relationship. When they buy a surprisingly affordable – albeit in dire need of renovations – apartment in Oslo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to take their domestic bliss a step further and start their family. Soon, Mona becomes pregnant, much to Robbie’s delight. She, on the other hand, begins to question her existence in a society that seems to have decided who she should be a long time ago.

The dynamic between Mona and Robbie seems even and healthy until Rasmussen scratches to reveal the cracks beneath the surface. Unemployed Mona struggles to fulfill her dreams as a fashion designer and is content to work tirelessly to spruce up their new, possibly haunted, apartment. Nesting unconsciously, she peels off layers of yellowed wallpaper all day, while Robbie works at her very boring and very important job.

A confused 25-year-old struggling to assert her worth, Mona may not want to be a mother just yet. Confined to a maternity hut, she hesitates to clearly express her needs for fear of disappointing Robbie and not fulfilling her supposed role as a woman.

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As this misunderstanding was not anxiety enough in itself, Nightmare builds on it with a foray into the supernatural realm. In the new apartment, Mona begins to have increasingly horrible night terrors. Alone and exhausted, the protagonist slowly realizes that something is wrong with the couple next door and their baby. A terrifying realization creeps in that whatever afflicts them can target her and Robbie next.

This multi-themed horror lacks direction

Like its protagonist, Nightmare does not know what he wants or can be. This lack of direction comes at the expense of a gripping central performance and an atmospheric world-building reminiscent of 1970s and 1980s horror.

Mona’s sleep paralysis and sudden pregnancy are good metaphors for the loss of bodily autonomy. While references to Rosemary’s baby are obvious, Rasmussen is also inspired by Extraterrestrial and The thing, centered on the idea that evil is taking over his body. Still, the exploration of traditional gender roles is watered down as the storyline travels down multiple paths.

Unable to fight her demons, Mona seeks help from sleep specialist Dr. Aksel (Dennis Storhøi), veering towards the horror of sleep paralysis. Nightmare watch movies like Nightmare on Elm Streetand even Creation in places, to tread the line between dream and reality in disturbing contrast. It’s odd that viewers are expected to take at face value all of the futuristic dream technology that Dr. Aksel has conveniently developed. In a film that makes sure to explain Mona’s trauma too soon, this neglect defeats the story.

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Nightmare is also a haunted apartment horror. Mona and Robbie’s apartment in Oslo becomes the latest in a long line of fictional homes harboring dark secrets. The sound design does a great job of conveying Mona’s growing unease through mysterious and malevolent noises from inside and outside her apartment. The production design also excels at transforming a new refuge into an alienating space, with the house gradually collapsing. Meanwhile, Mona is too.

Harboe adds complexity to the character, his face bearing the signs of Mona’s anguish and exhaustion because no one – not even Robbie, especially not Robbie – is listening.

NightMare fails to realize its full potential

What happens when bad dreams take on a familiar face? This is the question Nightmare implicitly prays by presenting two versions of Robbie. Loving but inattentive Robbie. One who lives in the real world. Meanwhile, we have visions of another Robbie. A sexual and malevolent. The alter ego from Mona’s nightmares. The film goes beyond painter Henry Fuseli’s classic depiction of the Mare but subtly plays with the idea that all men can be inherently evil and pose a threat to women. Yet why Robbie’s dream character is a villain is not a topic in the waking world. In a way, this feels like a missed opportunity to offer a stronger commentary on domestic violence and emotional abuse.

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After all, imposing one’s point of view on a person’s body is nothing short of violent. But Nightmare seems to forget that during the finale, a sequence which, again, thrives in the gray zone between dream and reality. Playing on uncertainty can only work for so long, and some dissatisfaction is amplified by the film’s pointlessness and hyper-derivative nature. By the time we get to Mona and Robbie again at the end, it’s hard to get really invested.

Nightmare is not without merit. The film effectively recreates a creepy, vintage atmosphere through suggestive camerawork, as Rasmussen crafts a first act that’s both a nod to the classics and intriguing enough to stand on its own. This premise is betrayed as the script slackens and cannot or will not give its subplots a cohesive denouement and conclusion. An open finale won’t always keep the audience engaged, and Nightmare‘s may leave some viewers lukewarm. Much like a fleeting dream, this horror pulls together things we’ve seen before and but fails to make a lasting impression.

Stefania Sarrubba

Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized from a young age by Tim Curry and Dario Argento’s Pennywise films, she grew up convinced that horror wasn’t her thing. Until she gets into cannibal films with a female protagonist. Yum.

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