J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

DWF ’15: The Man in the Shadows

There must be something stirring in our collective subconscious. For some reason, sleep paralysis and the malevolent figures sometimes reported by those suffering from the condition have recently popped in the popular culture, under at least two very different guises. After blowing the doors off this year’s Sundance, Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, perhaps the scariest documentary maybe ever, opens in theaters this Friday. The phenomenon that likely inspired Freddy Kruger also gets another fictional scare treatment in Joshua Fraiman’s The Man in the Shadows (trailer here), which screens during the eighteenth Dances With Films, in Hollywood, California.

Whether it is happening in an ostensibly true sense or not hardly matter for those who experience sleep paralysis. Those even more unfortunate often find themselves trapped between dreams and waking life, while being menaced by the so-called “Hat Man” and the shadow men. Rachel Darwin is one such terrorized soul. Weary from her nightmares, Darwin has been self-medicating with dope and withdrawing from her alarmed husband Scott. Of course, his recent infidelity hasn’t helped their marriage much either. In fact, he rather assumes her dreams are rooted in her sense of injured betrayal. How like a trial attorney to assume it is all about him.

Sadly, she really is seeing the creepy figures. Worse still, they are aware of her awareness and are keeping close tabs on her. As Darwin clings to her last shreds of sanity, her husband hatches a brilliant plan to rekindle their romance in an old, poorly lit cabin somewhere far from town. Remember, he is a trial attorney.

Frankly, sleep paralysis and the nightmarish visions that often accompany it are so creepy, it is almost impossible to make a film about it that is not scary, at least to some extent. Frustratingly, Fraiman also mixes in some violent nightmare imagery that essentially qualify as torture porn. Be warned, the opening credits are tough sledding to get through. Nevertheless, some of the speculations offered by William, a fellow sufferer at Darwin’s group therapy, are rather unsettling and differ significantly from Ascher’s film.

Throughout the film, Sarah Jurgens’s Darwin looks convincingly terrified and sleep-deprived. Conversely, Nick Baillie never finds the right key for the problematically annoying and strangely arrogant husband. However, as wacko William, Adam Tomlinson is appropriately twitchy and skittish, in a horror movie kind of way.

By their very nature, if that is the best term, shadow people are perfectly suited for horror films. It is not simply due to their explicitly threatening behavior. That which is unseen is always far scarier than any bogeyman we can clearly see in all its supposed ferocity. Likewise, Fraiman falters when he shows too much, especially during the hostel-like dreams sequences. What’s the point of having shadow men, when you are forcing the dreaming Darwin to undergo a Hostel-style abortion? Its just unnecessarily ugly stuff. Regardless, Ascher’s The Nightmare is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday, whereas Fraiman’s The Man in the Shadows is best saved for genre junkies in dire need of a fix when it screens tomorrow (6/1) as part of DWF18.

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