MK Ultra was a top secret CIA mind control program that had its beginnings in America shortly after the Korean Conflict ended. It was a response to the Cold War as well as to alleged attempts at mind control the North Koreans and their allies used against American POW’s during the Korean Conflict. The American government identified and recruited Nazi war criminals who had experimented with torture and brainwashing techniques during WWII to build the U.S. mind control program. This program was expanded throughout the 1950’s and used on completely oblivious human subjects as well as a few volunteers for experiments involving LSD, hypnosis, isolation, deprivation, sexual and physical abuse, and even torture. Highly controversial and not particularly successful, the program was limited several times during the 1960’s and officially ended in 1973. Exposed shortly thereafter, the full story of MK Ultra remains obscured in mystery because the CIA destroyed much of the documentation shortly after the story was leaked. While the project was declassified in 2001 and new found documents have been released, most Americans know very little about this embarrassing part of U.S. history.
Nightmare follows a young man who was an MK Ultra test subject and whose handler is his own brother. Carl is a trained killer and keeps tally of his number of kills as a series of scars on his body. He is apparently highly successful as his entire upper torso is covered by an organized series of scar tissue ticks that indicate dozens of human lives that have been taken. He has become unstable and is now having a difficult time separating his nightmares from reality as his guilt literally eats him alive from the inside out.
Filmmaker Nic Collins is a student of both history as well as psychology, and much of the film is steeped in analytical psychology, particularly Carl Jung’s dream archetypes. This lends a powerful and disturbing atmosphere to the film that is hard to shake. Filmed in stark black-and-white, much of the imagery is disconcerting and will remain with the viewer even if one isn’t a student of Jungian psychological theory. As his guilt begins to consume him, Carl (a not-so-subtle homage to the Great Man himself), flutters between visions of these archetypes such as the masked man that represents The Persona, but could also represent The Shadow, or–even more scary–The Self. But are these visions real? Are they memories of people Carl has killed? Or do they represent Carl’s guilt, which has developed into a rather large complex, another Jungian structure?
The cinematography is phenomenal, with several striking scenes and images and the lighting is also superb, lending the film a dark and seedy atmosphere, not unlike classic noir films. Indeed, many characters seem to be filmed just out of range of the lights which obscure their faces in shadow, and there is at least one scene filmed with venetian lighting that is certainly influenced by noir. The soundtrack–score doesn’t seem the proper descriptor here–is bizarre and haunting and also helps to create an atmosphere thick with tension. Created with various noises rather than instruments, some sounds correspond with Carl’s visions, as if he is being actively manipulated by MK Ultra scientists even as he attempts to resist the thoughts pushing their way into his mind. Nightmare reminds me very much of Lynch’s Eraserhead in look, sound, and even in some ways, theme.
Nightmare is essentially a two-man film with Pete Navis as Sid, Carl’s brother/handler and possible Persona. Navis is very good, but the star of the film is Joe Rubin who plays Carl. He is a tour de force of raw and emotional power and his characterization of Carl is intense. Special mention must also go out to Alexandra Leopold who has a very brief but stomach-churning scene as a young girl about to be hurt by a stranger. While no words are spoken, her facial expression speaks volumes even though she is simply sitting in a chair.
In the end, the viewer is left to interpret what all this means and, as I am not well-versed in psychology I will refrain from attempting my own explanation. Suffice to say that Collins’ 20-minute short is extremely well-made and fascinating as well as disconcerting and ultimately compelling. It marks him as a filmmaker to watch. Nightmare has just recently been completed and isn’t available for mass viewing yet, but for more information visit Nic’s Vimeo page at http://www.niccollins.com.