Call a movie “Der Nachtmahr” and you’ve got your work cut out for you. At the very least, the film had better be scary — preferably enough so that audiences have disturbing dreams for days to come. But “Der Nachtmahr” isn’t scary; “Der Nachtmahr” is loud. A title card at the beginning of the film instructs theaters to crank up the volume, projecting a rebel attitude this German-language psychological thriller simply can’t sustain. Once the extreme strobing and techno thrashing of the opening reel lets up, the pic settles into a flat, fairly conventional “Twilight Zone” episode about an anxious party girl and the goblin-like creature lurking about her subconscious. The film itself feels like some sort of mad-scientist creation, more often tedious than terrifying as it grafts surreal imagery onto an otherwise generic high-school horror movie.
A project long in the works for German visual artist Akiz, “Der Nachtmahr” centers on a grotesque, Gollum-like homunculus that may or may not be haunting 17-year-old Tina Peterson (Carolyn Genzkow). A carefree blonde who would much rather be getting drunk with her friends than losing sleep over whatever strange monstrosity seems so inexplicably intent on ruining her summer, Tina experiences her first serious rift with reality at a pool party, watching an online video of a girl hit by a speeding car moments before the incident repeats itself in real life — only this time, she’s the victim. Or not, for as soon as the accident happens, everything flash-rewinds and the scene replays with a different outcome.
Akiz, whose art and short-film work has been championed by the likes of Banksy and David Lynch, seems to be reaching for some sort of “Twin Peaks”-y creep factor here. Sadly, the resulting mind games don’t resemble dreams so much as moments stolen from low-rent horror movies and other sources, including, of course, Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare,” which depicts a dark incubus crouched on the abdomen of a dozing woman.
Meanwhile, coming across as just another teen in short shorts and skanky tank tops, Genzkow’s Tina simply isn’t interesting enough to carry us through the film’s short running time. Oddly, it’s actually far more unsettling to watch this oddly out-of-it character and her similarly feckless friends cavorting in public (at the fluorescent-lit pool or in a claustrophobic basement rave, where music verges on the deafening while jump-cut footage is punctuated by disorienting bursts of light) than it is to contemplate her gradual unraveling at home.
Another of the director’s influences might have been Roman Polanski, between the “Repulsion”-like way Tina’s three-story home appears to close in on her (though captured with disorienting wide angles, the sterile location doesn’t exactly lend itself to terror) and the character’s “Rosemary’s Baby”-esque conviction that only she can grasp the demonic conspiracy at whose center she finds herself. After a couple of freaky sightings of her nightmare creature in public, Tina agrees to go to therapy. Instead of doubting her story (the way her parents do), Tina’s counselor suggests that next time the creature appears, maybe she should try talking to it.
Now there’s an interesting idea — and one that ought to seem counterintuitive to those schooled on the sort of expendable-teenager movies. The film’s tensest moment is easily the one where Tina decides to make contact with the deformed being that’s been keeping her up at night. At first, only she can see or hear it, but as the film goes on, Akiz allows the creature to seem more and more real, until such point that it’s being taken away and experimented upon, a la “E.T.”
It feels as if Akiz is trying to tap into some larger anxiety about being that age — an intriguing psychological inquiry that has something to do with embracing one’s inner freak, perhaps. But the more time we spend with Tina’s nightmare entity, the less scary (or interesting) it becomes, doing that art-world thing where it provides no actual meaning, but intends to let audiences project whatever they want onto ambiguous scenes (the ridiculous last shot was evidently one of the first to arrive in Akiz’s imagination). Those who caught the pic’s badass teaser trailer online are sure to feel the most disappointed that the punk energy it promised exists only in fitful doses, while visuals that looked nightmarish and oh-so-deviant in flashes fall apart when our brains have time to watch them unfold in context.