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{BFI London Film Festival 2022} NightMare

An ambitious pregnancy horror, NightMare loses its focus to pay homage to different cult classics, failing to deliver in a weak third act.

Playing at London Film Festival, the feature debut from writer-director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen incorporates many a familiar trope, hinting at multiple sub-genres at play. Zeroing in on the struggles of womanhood and motherhood, the plot of NightMare also leans into Northern European folklore with the Mare, a demon known for “riding” its victims in their sleep.

NightMare challenges the harmful narratives about motherhood

The film kicks off with couple Mona (Eili Harboe) and Robbie (Herman Tømmeraas) eager to take the next step in their relationship. When they buy a surprisingly affordable — though, in dire need of renovations — flat in Oslo, that seems the perfect opportunity to take their domestic bliss a step further and start their family. Soon, Mona gets pregnant, much to Robbie’s delight. She, on the other hand, starts questioning her existence in a society that seems to have decided who she should be long ago.

The dynamics between Mona and Robbie look equal and healthy until Rasmussen scratches to reveal the cracks beneath the surface. An unemployed Mona struggles to follow her fashion designer dreams and settles for working tirelessly to spruce up their new, possibly haunted apartment. Unconsciously nesting, she peels away at layers of yellowed wallpaper all day, while Robbie is out working his very boring, very important job.

A confused 25-year-old striving to affirm her worth, Mona may not want to be a mother just yet. Confined to a motherhood box, she’s reluctant to make her needs clear for fear of disappointing Robbie and not fulfilling her supposed role as a woman.

As this miscommunication wasn’t anxiety-inducing enough in itself, NightMare builds up on it with an incursion into the supernatural realm. In the new apartment, Mona starts having increasingly horrifying night terrors. Alone and exhausted, the protagonist slowly realizes something is off with the couple next door and their baby. A terrifying realization creeps in: whatever is plaguing them may target her and Robbie next. 

This multi-themed horror lacks direction

Like its protagonist, NightMare doesn’t know what it wants or can be. This lack of direction comes to the detriment of a gripping central performance and an atmospheric world-building reminiscing of the 1970s and 1980s horror.

Sleep paralysis and Mona’s sudden pregnancy are good metaphors for losing one’s bodily autonomy. While the references to Rosemary’s Baby are blatant, Rasmussen also draws inspiration from Alien and The Thing, centered on the idea of evil taking over one’s body. Yet, the exploration of traditional gender roles is watered down as the script spreads onto multiple paths. 

Unable to fight off her demons, Mona asks sleep specialist Dr. Aksel (Dennis Storhøi) for help, veering towards sleep paralysis horror. NightMare looks at films like Nightmare on Elm Street, and even Inception in places, to tread the line between dream and reality in an unsettling contrast. It’s strange that viewers are expected to take every futuristic dream technology that Dr. Aksel has conveniently developed at face value. In a film that makes sure to overly explain Mona’s trauma from early on, this carelessness works against the story.

NightMare is also a haunted apartment horror. Mona and Robbie’s Oslo flat becomes the latest in a long canon of fictional houses harboring dark secrets. The sound design does a great job conveying Mona’s growing uneasiness through mysterious, malevolent noises coming from within her flat and outside of it. The production design also excels in turning a new haven into an alienating space, with the house progressively crumbling down. Meanwhile, Mona is, too.

Harboe adds complexity into the character, her face bearing the signs of Mona’s anguish and exhaustion as no one — not even Robbie, especially not Robbie — listens.

NightMare fails to deliver on its full potential

What happens when bad dreams take on a familiar face? This is the question NightMare implicitly begs by presenting two versions of Robbie. The loving if inattentive Robbie. The one living in the real world. Meanwhile we get visions of another Robbie. One sex-driven and malevolent. The alter ego of Mona’s nightmares. The film goes beyond the classic representation of the Mare by painter Henry Fuseli but plays subtly with the idea that all men may inherently be bad and pose a threat to women. Yet, why Robbie’s dream persona is a bad guy isn’t a topic in the world of the woke. In a way, this feels like a missed opportunity to offer a stronger commentary on domestic violence and psychological abuse.

After all, forcing one’s views on a person’s body is nothing short of violent. But NightMare appears to forget that during the finale, a sequence that, again, thrives in the grey area between dream and reality. Playing on uncertainty can only work for so long, and a certain dissatisfaction is intensified by the film’s aimlessness and hyper-derivative nature. By the time we get to Mona and Robbie again in the end, it’s hard to be truly invested.

NightMare is not without merit. The film effectively recreates a vintage, chilling atmosphere through suggestive camera work, while Rasmussen pens a first act that is both a nod to the classics and intriguing enough to stand on its own. That premise is betrayed as the script gets looser and cannot or will not give its subplots a coherent denouement and conclusion. An open finale won’t always keep the audience engaged, and NightMare’s may leave some viewers tepid. Much like a fleeting dream, this horror pieces together things we’ve seen before and but fails to make a lasting impression.