Posted on April 6, 2016

Review: Paralysis (2015)

Dawn

Paralysis is the new short film written/directed by R. Shanea Williams and produced by Anthony J. Davis.

Williams’s last film, Contamination, which I discuss here, is available on Vimeo, along with the trailer for Paralysis:

Paralysis continues the thematic preoccupation of Williams’s earlier film in that it focuses on a woman with a psychological disorder, in this case sleep paralysis (as opposed to the OCD experienced by the protagonist of Contamination).

With the exception of a brief scene late in the film, Paralysis (like Contamination) is shot entirely within the apartment of the main character, Jessica Sulloway (Nia Fairweather). In the opening scene, we see Jessica on the phone telling someone she’s not taking any more clients, and thus from the very beginning, we sense that this woman’s life is constricting. It is precisely the sense of characters being claustrophobically confined that Williams is able to convey so effectively in her films. Indeed, Paralysis does this even more chillingly than Contamination, because it introduces a supernatural layer of meaning lurking beneath both literal and psychological oppression.

The film’s scenes cut between showing Jessica awake and asleep, but one of the brilliant things about the film is the way it immediately starts blurring the lines between sleep and wakefulness. More than once in the film, Jessica seems to wake up, but then we realize she didn’t. Or did she?

1. Paralysis, Jessica in bed

As the lines of reality and nightmare dissolve, the film also visually begins to suggest that Jessica is splitting, her nighttime self, in the throes of struggling with her sleep paralysis, becoming almost a separate person. Williams indicates this disintegration subtly through Jessica’s clothing and the general color of the scene, which are completely different when we see Jessica during the day and at night. Credit to Fairweather here for her ability to project, uncannily, what seem to become almost two distinct people, as Jessica starts doing increasingly disturbing things at night, things that are increasingly alien to her conscious, waking self. The eerie use of mirrors throughout the scenes at night only adds to the atmosphere of disintegration.

The gloom haunting the nighttime scenes

The gloom haunting the nighttime scenes

In the one scene later in the film when Jessica leaves the apartment, she goes not to a psychologist but to a parapsychologist (because of what she fears she or another entity did while she slept). Jessica clearly feels she’s experiencing something beyond the kind of “normal” sleep disorder she’s been plagued with since she was ten. The parapsychologist tells her, “Perhaps the monsters aren’t just in your dreams anymore”—and that “There are all kinds of monsters,” a line that is repeated in the film’s intriguingly indeterminate ending.

Paralysis raises real questions about what, exactly, Jessica’s monsters really are. She lost her mother when she was ten, and that loss clearly still has a deep effect on her years later. One frame that captures her (failed) efforts to sleep—pills and cups of tea by the bed—tellingly includes a photo of herself and her mother. Are Jessica’s monsters born in unresolved grief for her mother? In her more recent divorce? Or is there something tangible, something demonic, in her apartment (a visit from a well-meaning neighbor tantalizingly raises this possibility)?

2. Paralysis, photo of mother

Are Jessica’s monsters, in other words, the monsters of a trauma that is paralyzing her, of a paralyzing sleep disorder, or of some more real malevolent entity that is itself somehow “frozen,” waiting, in her apartment?

Williams has said that her cinematic influences include The Twilight Zone, which she used to watch in re-runs with her mother, as well as psychological horror-thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Tenant, The Shining, The Babadook, What Lies Beneath and the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock. Williams loves how Hitchcock, in particular, was able to build up suspense and keep audiences guessing—which is exactly what Williams does so expertly in Paralysis.

Paralysis is currently traveling the film festival route—and has most recently been officially selected to screen at The Las Vegas Black Film Festival (where it has received nominations for Best Short Film, Best Director, and Best Actress [Nia Fairweather]) and The Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival.

#FearTheParalysis

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