Jason Scott Campbell
Trivia For more information on the film, read our exclusive interview with the director Dylan Bank here.
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18th Nov 05
A film student starts shooting a film of his very own nightmare reality.
Beautifully blurring the lines of fiction, reality, dreams and film-making, Nightmare is a low-budget indie gem that starts off low-key and eerie before descending and ending in sheer seat-gripping horror and sex-fuelled violence.
Coming across as a mixture between Living in Oblivion and Peeping Tom (with a dash of Vertigo for good measure), Dylan Bank's debut feature (co-written with producer Morgan Pehme) is proof that intelligent independent horror is still alive, kicking and more than ready to slash your throat in an instant.
Nightmare focuses on an unnamed film student (played by Jason Scott Campbell) who has just successfully completed a short film and is currently the toast of his film class. At the screening party for his latest short the young director meets an attractive black woman called Natalya (Nicole Roderick) and, following a brief intimate chat in a quiet corridor, the two soon head home for a night of love and sex gymnastics.
However, when the pair awake the next day, they discover a video camera pointing at them from the foot of the bed, as if it had been recording their actions all night. Without knowing who placed the camera there, the couple watch the footage on the tape, expecting to see visions of the previous night’s sex action, but instead they glimpse hellish footage of what seems to be a naked snuff movie. Even worse, it seems that the murderers on the tape appear to be the film director and Natalya themselves.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much time to investigate, as the film director is late for his film class, so he leaves Natalya with the tape and rushes to the class where he is to pitch his next project. Obviously disturbed by the morning’s events, the director messes up his first pitch (a one-take slave epic), but then he decides to recount his experiences of the last 24 hours, and describes a pitch that deals with a film director who discovers a tape that shows him and a girl murdering unknown people. Summed up as a film about a film director who is “trapped in his own nightmare”, the class geek out on his idea and decide to make the film, unaware that the director is literally making it up (based on his real experiences) as he goes along.
That evening he returns to meet Natalya and they rewatch the tape again. Is it really them? (Although horrific, the footage is fleeting and it’s not completely clear who is actually committing the atrocities). Who made the tape? Do they recognise any of the people being killed onscreen in front of them? With no immediate answers, the couple are both at a loss for any explanation and decide to spend the night together, but when they wake the next morning, they find yet another video camera pointing directly at them.
This time there’s no doubting who is featured on the tape – there is a clear shot of the director with a razor in his mouth advancing towards a man in chains. Natalya is freaked out by the creepy, gory and quite nasty footage and she leaves, just as the onscreen director advances towards the victim and proceeds to saw the man’s arm off on the videotape footage.
Obviously even more disturbed by the latest revelations, the director then rushes off to his class, where auditions are being held for his ‘Nightmare’ short film project. Amidst cast readings of people exclaiming “I didn’t do it” and “That wasn’t me on the tape”, the director soon descends into a blurred state of reality, where dreams, fiction and the practicalities of making a film based on these nightmares conspire to distort the director’s view of his own world.
Despite the film’s initial low-budget shortcomings during the opening half hour (or is that all part of the cleverly structured style?), Nightmare is easily one of the best indie debuts for some time. Effortlessly mixing the line between film, film-making, reality and dream, it comes across as a Nightmare vision that grows increasingly more dangerous as the director, convinced it is not himself on the tapes, gets closer to unravelling the mystery.
Instead of going for the exploitation angle (although admittedly there is a lot of nudity, sex and violence in this film), Nightmare strives for something higher – a film that requires its audience to think and ask itself many questions. At times we're never quite sure what we're watching - is it the real character's world, his dreams, his imaginings, or part of the film within the film documentating both the real or imagined events of the film itself? (Phew - talk about post-modern!) In fact it's testament to the script that the film never trips over it's own tangles - have faith because it does ultimately drift towards a satisfying climax, even if you may need to watch the movie twice to totally appreciate all that's happening.
With a protagonist of a wannabe film director, there is always a slight danger of the film being a little too clever for it’s own good at times, but Jason Scott Campbell’s performance is excellent, at first displaying torment and anguish as he tries to find out more about his situation before descending down the long road into insanity as his film-within-a-film (and at one point, a film-within-a-film-within-a-film) starts to take shape.
Special mention must also go to Nicole Roderick for her daring performance as Natalya. For a role that requires a lot of nudity (especially as Natalya is cast to play ‘herself’ in the director’s short film), Nicole seizes the role with much relish and ably drifts between innocence and dangerous mysteriousness. It’s certainly no surprise to hear that Nicole has received three Best Actor awards for her role in three festival showings so far – the Eerie Horror Film Festival and both the New York and the Chicago Horror Film Festivals.
The music for the film (written by Kangol) is also subtly grandiose. Offering a simple piano and strings score, the music is used to great effect to accentuate the growing horror of the protagonist’s situation. All too often films are caked in music that is supposed to direct how we feel about what we are seeing, yet in Nightmare the music is used sparingly to heighten the horrific atmosphere. Add to this the nightmarish visuals and crafty editing (check out the scene where the director wakes up in a prison cell and tosses and turns in his bed in a glorious blur-edit), and the whole audio/visual experience combines to create a genuinely unnerving experience.
That’s not to say there is no humour in the film though. There is one lovely mobile ring tone gag that works beautifully, a T-shirt is featured with the amusing line ‘Liqueur in the front, Poker in the back’ and the film is peppered with knowing in-jokes about the film-making process to the point where even the short film’s director of photography (reminiscent of a young Catherine Keener from Living in Oblivion) complains about the overuse of nudity in the film – “I am tired of pointing the camera at pornography!”
With a beautifully crafted and intricate screenplay, accomplished cinematography (which seems to get better and better as the film progresses, in line with the onscreen appearance and tutorage of the lecturer of the film class) and all-round great performances from the relatively inexperienced cast, Nightmare is a real breakthrough for independent cinema – not so much sex, lies and videotape as sex, knives and snuff videotapes.
An intense and wholly satisfying experience, Nightmare is what every low-budget shocker should aim for – a thinking person’s slasher movie with the added bonus of being set in the world of film-making. Similar in theme to last year’s The Last Horror Movie, Nightmare dares to challenge the audience on what they are seeing, placing the viewer in a compromising position, because at the end of the film, the question of how much the script echoes the actual reality of filming Nightmare is in itself an utterly frightening thought.
Currently wowing crowds on the festival circuit, Nightmare more than deserves to receive proper distribution, and could well prove to be the start of a great career for director and co-writer Dylan Bank. Let’s just hope his next pitch is as good as this one.