I AM NIGHTMARE is the third and latest animated feature from M Dot Strange. It’s a supernatural horror film of sorts and it clocks in at 128 minutes making it his longest film yet, which is necessary as it’s also the most complex and intricate narrative M Dot Strange has worked with yet.
The story follows a group of orphans and their caretaker Marie who have newly arrived at the ominous ‘Lantern Town’, “a town that never changes”. The town is curiously devoid of other children and the adults that live there spend their nights in the tavern engaged in acts of hedonism, while the orphans are forced to go out on patrol for monsters. When Marie enters the tavern to talk to the Mayor about changing this policy of child labour, she is shut down quickly. The Mayor exclaims “It’s just the way it is. Your children will get to live this good life as well once they’ve worked hard enough and reached the proper age.” Something is definitely a bit off with the townsfolk in the tavern.
It then shifts to Shy, a teenage girl who’s hiding by a well. Simmons (the Mayor’s advisor) comes and tells her that she must go and work at the inn as she’s of age. As he drags her away her tears fall down the well. Luminous pages suddenly spiral out of the well and a dark figure with a sword materialises. Meanwhile the rest of the children are out patrolling in the woods. One of the children Mack tells a story about a nightmare trying eating a boy who escapes down a well. They are distracted and then attacked by several black cloaked monsters which swallow two of them. The monsters are subsequently defeated by a mysterious and silent nightmare hunter and the children are saved. The nightmare hunter then appears at the tavern and tells the Mayor that he’s been summoned to the town. The Mayor questions him but the hunter walks off in silence and enters a shrine. The townsfolk are uneasy and the mayor wants him gone.
I AM NIGHTMARE is a supernatural horror film that has many similarities to Kaidan or Japanese Edo period ghost story films. It’s setting and tone evoke comparisons to films such as KWAIDAN, UGETSU or KURONEKO. It’s a tale of murder, betrayal, a vengeful spirit, immoral monsters and the loss of a loved one. True to M Dot Strange’s style, he manages to weave these into a fantastical world which contains elements such as a bizarre town surrounded by monster infested woods and even a Mecha battle. It’s clear that M Dot is influenced by Mecha fiction as it is a recurring element in I AM NIGHTMARE as well as his 2008 film WE ARE THE STRANGE.
The supernatural horror theme of I AM NIGHTMARE is pulled off with M Dot Strange’s use of an excellent atmosphere, frantic but well placed action and fleshed out characters. The set design and visual style is much more minimal compared to his previous films. Perhaps this is due to time limitations but it still looks great due to M Dot Strange’s use of lighting, colour and particle effects. The minimal style makes it all the more effective when chaotic and surreal scenes are introduced towards the climax and M Dot’s signature visual mayhem unfolds.
The lip syncing is quite jarring at first (the mouths only move up and down and not phoneme shapes), however you soon get used to it and it even makes sense when you remember that it’s a world of strange humanoid dolls. The character animation is for the most part good, but seems a little rushed at times, and occasionally the camera movement is a little clumsy. These small defects start to make sense when you find out that M Dot Strange produced this film in 1 year, pretty much by himself.
The voice acting for the most part is really great. I believed in all the characters and the dialogue fit well, especially with the adult characters. Some of the towns creepier denizens like Bore and the town drunk had me in stitches with their perverted lines. Some of the children’s jokes fall flat but this adds the fact that they’re y’know… children. The voice of one of the children Teenee is fucking annoying, but again this is because the character is an obnoxious hyperactive child, so it works. The soundtrack by M Dot Strange and Mad Dashiel is excellent and the diegetic sound design and really makes the world come alive.
I AM NIGHTMARE is a film about children for adults. The world is fantanstical, vivid and cohesive but M Dot Strange has always done that well. What I AM NIGHTMARE succeeds at best is the narrative. The story is relatively complex and it’s executed with finesse. Early on in I AM NIGHTMARE themes arise such as the painful division between child and adult but as the story begins to unravel it shifts to ideas around loss, pain and willful ignorance. My one criticism of the story is that it becomes too simplistic and black and white towards the conclusion. Throughout the first half of the film things aren’t so clear. You weren’t sure what everyone’s exact motivations were and the characters existed in a world of gray which I found really interesting. However as things become clearer in the delirious climax, the world turns to one of good and evil, black and white, which I found too simplistic and less interesting. In essence I AM NIGHTMARE is a sort of fairy-tale analogy and it works well as one, but i’d find it more interesting if there was a bit more realism and duality to the characters.
Overall I AM NIGHTMARE is M Dot Strange’s best film yet. The visuals aren’t quite as impressive as his first two films (likely due to the fact he created it in one year) however it’s minimal style is effective and it works. The films characters are cohesive with the story and it explores some interesting themes. Throughout I AM NIGHTMARE you can really see an artist begin to gain mastery with his medium. It’s definitely recommended for fans of weird independent animation.