Director: Rick Bieber
Writer: Rick Bieber
Release Date: 29 September, 2017
This review is part of our 31 Days of Horror series. You can check out the other posts by clicking these words.
To be completely honest, I don’t even know where to start.
That sounds promising.
Seriously, I have no idea what this is. A horror film? A monster movie? A gothic love story? Some kind of weird, drug-induced fever dream? A remarkably misinformed and ill-conceived exploration of mental health? All of the above? None of them?
Whatever Don’t Sleep is, what I do know is that it’s terrible.
Oh, boy. What’s it about?
Good question. It’s so ridiculously convoluted I couldn’t really say, but as a compromise I’ll just briefly jot down some of the stuff that happens and leave you to try and make sense of it on your own. It opens with a Nietzsche quote, one about identifying with the darker aspects of oneself, so maybe it’s about that. Then again, this arrives hot on the heels of a hilariously cheap-looking dream sequence in which a boy named Zach (Dash Williams) staggers through a foggy marsh. This reasty mire contains a smattering of perennial horror-film fixtures, such as a balding crone, a smirking little girl with a mask like half a poppadom and furry, yellow teeth, and an evil doppelganger in terrible makeup and a TK Maxx hoody. Get used to that last one – you’ll be seeing a lot of him.
Zach has a remarkably upbeat and unconcerned therapist, Dr. Summers (Carey Elwes), who I’m fairly sure has no interest in his issues and is just trying to get into his mum’s knickers. Never mind him, though, let’s fast-forward several years into the future instead.
Don’t ask. The film doesn’t actually make this temporal leap all that clear, so it actually took me several scenes to realise we were re-joining the same character. He’s married now, to a beautiful woman inexplicably named Shawn (Charlbi Dean Kriek), and they’ve just moved into a lovely crib that they’re renting from their new neighbours, Jo and Vincent (Drea de Matteo and Alex Carter). Zach (now played by Dominic Sherwood) seems to have it all; “the perfect life”, as its described by his creepy best friend, Timmy (Andrew Caldwell), who just kind of teleports into the movie without ever having been mentioned before. He’s married to a “goddess”, he’s topping his class at law school, and these days he sleeps like a baby. All is well. That is, of course, until Vincent’s old-school immigrant father (Alex Rocco) commits suicide after being randomly assaulted by a suspicious creep in a familiar TK Maxx hoody. I should note that immediately preceding that mugging are a couple of scenes that explicitly set this old dude up as some kind of villain, so that’s especially dumb.
Let me guess – Zach starts having nightmares again?
Not really, no, which pretty much defeats the purpose of a film that is ostensibly about them. I think he has a couple, but he mostly begins to get plagued by daytime visions of his younger, evil, sportswear-clad self, and tormented by a video of a man being tortured that randomly plays on his laptop. Nobody believes Zach, or really understands why he’s suddenly so desperate to uncover what happened to him during his obviously-traumatic childhood, and if the film is about anything – I’m not entirely convinced that it is – then it’s probably about how the happiest and most successful among us are usually the ones with skeletons spilling out of their closets.
That seems like an odd reading.
Yeah, maybe, but I don’t have much to work with here. Zach’s successes and happiness and likability are reinforced so relentlessly by secondary characters that the film can’t really be about anything else; it’s so sloppily, thoughtlessly written that you always know what the film’s getting at because its characters state it outright, often at great length. Here’s a quaint suburban village full of people whose only real purpose seems to be helping this good-looking, well-adjusted young man compartmentalise all his dark, hooded secrets. You’d think it’s about guilt, or processing grief, but as far as I can tell Zach hasn’t done anything to be guilty about, or lost anyone worth grieving over. The script has just jumbled-up a bunch of mental illness tropes and genre conceits and slapped them all together into 101 incomprehensible minutes. At several points I asked, aloud, what the fuck was supposed to be happening. Nobody managed to give me an answer.
It can’t be that bad.
No, it isn’t – it’s worse. What I’ve described is idiotic, but you really need to have all this bullshit performed to you by a god-awful cast to get the full effect. At one point Jo, the neighbour, takes her husband aside to let him in on an urban legend about a noble, Crusades-era warrior who becomes a monster after returning home from war to discover his lovely wife has been raped to death. Later in the film, I’m almost certain that Jo gets raped by a ghost. What’s the correlation here? A commentary on how trying it can be to shack up with a do-gooder? The more I dig into the film’s foundations for any kind of subtext, the more I scoop up handfuls of rot. The writer and director of this nonsense is Rick Bieber – remind me to add him to The List.
Is it scary, at least?
Not in the slightest. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more unintentionally hilarious it becomes. This is partly because the makeup and effects are of roughly the same quality as your average doorstep trick-or-treater, but it’s mainly thanks to how brazenly dumb the whole thing gets. You watch it aghast, thoroughly stunned at the extent of the stupidity. Who thought this was a good idea? What about it attracted someone like Carey Elwes? He was in The Princess Bride for fuck’s sake. He’s Dr. Lawrence Gordon!
You know, I tend to get saddled with a lot of the drivel that the rest of Ready, Steady, Cut’s staff don’t want anything to do with, which as a senior writer and editor I should probably question a little more thoroughly. But even with that in mind, Don’t Sleep might well be the most confounding, awful piece of shit I’ve seen in my tenure here. It is truly abysmal.
The thing I’ve been thinking about the most since I watched this utter travesty is why they chose to title it “Don’t Sleep”, which doesn’t pertain to the story in any way whatsoever. I know that’s only a minor grievance in a long, long list of major ones, but still – they couldn’t even get the title right. I think that says an awful lot. In a gesture of goodwill, I’ve come up with a better one: Don’t Watch.
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