Experimenting with sleep deprivation is a horror movie concept we should all be able to relate to. Who hasn’t wished we could do away with an activity that seemingly wastes a third of our lifetime when there’s so much else to do?
That’s the thrilling kernel screenwriter Jason Murphy and director Phillip Guzman start with in Sleep No More – what kinds of capabilities, psychoses or horrors would the mind dredge up while suffering long periods of forced wakefulness?
A group of university research scientists are in the midst of a study trying to find that out when disaster strikes. One of their subjects, terrified and skittish about something only he can see, locks himself in a room and slits his own throat in terror.
The authorities shut the whole thing down and all seems lost, but program leads Joe (Keli Price) and Dr Whatley (Yasmine Aker) know how close they are to a breakthrough. Their research has indicated that if they can just keep subjects awake for 200 hours, they’ll reach a critical physiological barrier and never need to sleep again, the true potential of constant wakefulness revealed.
When the semester ending, and the labs empty for weeks, they decide to begin the study again on themselves, out of the view of the university ethics brass. They convince the rest of the team, Frannie (Brea Grant), Dale (Stephen Ellis) and Holly (Christine Dwyer) to assist, and the vigil begins.
It’s got to do with a compound that keeps the human body awake (the ostensible reason behind the study and the potential it offers for pharmaceutical treatments) and they all start the program of injections, cohabitating while locked inside the department buildings and waiting out the long days, fighting off the fuzzy headedness and clawing fatigue dragging them down.
The midsection of the film concerns itself with setting up the inevitable madness everyone suffers. They start to believe they’re being stalked by a ghost, but nobody (including you) can be sure owing to the state they’re in thanks to dampened senses and badly impaired cognition.
But the nightmares soon turn. Some members of the group find themselves physically attacked, the spirit or whatever it is menacing them having impossible effects on the real world around them.
It all takes a bit of a strange left turn when it seems like the study has put everyone in touch with another dimension that’s home to wraith-like creatures who can now come into our world for some reason. You’ll wonder if it’s just everybody going even more mental – if not, you’d think it would be the premise of the entire story and there’s just not much devoted to exploiting (or explaining) it. Instead, they might all just be losing their minds, the entire party eventually descending into an orgy of self-mutilation and murder.
The film dances a bit too much and too inconsequentially around the strong central question of what can happen if we don’t sleep for extended periods, and the final half could have done with being a lot tighter and not going in so many seemingly unrelated directions.
On the upside, the performances are all great for a movie of this budget, Ellis as Dale a particular standout playing the sarcastic, class clown type.
There’s also a decent sense of mood and style, although the 1980s setting is another weird aside. It’s as if screenwriter Murphy was basing it all on a true story that happened at the time, although there’s no indication of that. It might just be that Guzman wanted to throw in some 80s hits, either to wrong-foot you because of how out of step they seem to be with the creative mood or because they’re just his favourite songs.
Let us know what you thought of Sleep No More in the comments below.