DON’T SLEEP: Tiresome, Yawn-Inducing Horror
You'll find it hard to obey the rules of this film's title when watching, as even the positive elements can't stop Don't Sleep being a slog.
Don’t Sleep opens in a little boy’s bedroom. As he’s having a nightmare, the camera slowly creeps towards him, we get quick flashes into his horrible dream, the dramatic music builds to a crescendo, and then he wakes up. You know how in some horror films (usually mediocre ones) a couple of characters sit and watch a really shoddy horror film as a kind of laboured foreshadowing? Don’t Sleep‘s opening scene resembles that level of quality.
Thankfully, the film’s opening sequence is its worst and things start to improve from here on – but not by a whole lot. One of Don’t Sleep‘s chief issues is just how uninspired and formulaic its approach to the horror genre is, pulling itself into a rut early on and never serving up anything scary or compelling enough to really win itself back over. Conventional horror can still be effective if it’s at least executed with precision but Don’t Sleep can’t even muster up an effective jump scare, let alone any real, nerve-shattering terror.
A Sleepy Story
The film is pegged to a guy called Zach (Dominic Sherwood), who has had strange nightmares since he was a kid. He’s now an adult who’s pushed that life behind him and he’s all set to move into a lovely cottage in a lovely village with his lovely girlfriend Shawn (Charlbi Dean Kriek). They make things work for them, move into the new place without too much disruption to their lives and even bond with the neighbours (Alex Carter and Drea de Matteo) in the process. Soon, though, Zach’s spooky dreams start to return, and both his and Shawn’s peaceful lives are about to be thrown into a waking nightmare.
It’s a story that feels woefully formulaic and predictable from its very opening, and Don’t Sleep frequently threatens to derail on the sheer basis of how silly the execution of it all is. Ultimately, though, Don’t Sleep has to be granted praise for how unpredictable it turns out to be – I could comfortably say not a single viewer of this film could guess its conclusion. What begins as a bog standard horror film eventually erupts into something more fantastical, with elements of dark romance and paranormal fantasy flowing through its climax.
Yet still, the transition feels jarring. Remember how Get Out smoothly and intricately shifted from (spoiler alert!) “awkward casual racism in my girlfriend’s house” to “an entire family want to remove my brain and give it to an upper class white guy”? You’ll find none of that smart narrative work here, with Don’t Sleep instead relying on cheap plot tricks to become a whole new kind of film in its final few sequences. So, props for trying something pretty different, it’s just a shame it didn’t really come together.
Tiresome Characters and Drowsy Performances
Don’t Sleep‘s tackling of the horror genre is so lacklustre that, like most other sloppy horror B-movies, it forgets to write characters. Both Zach and Shawn are about as bland as fictional young adults can be, with Zach’s sole characteristic being his nightmares and Shawn’s being how she responds to them. The way the film avoids the pitfall of having Shawn not believe Zach when things get a bit weird is appreciated, but Don’t Sleep soon doubles back on that promise too. It’s a film content to serve up potentially nifty little genre tricks, but one unprepared to handle them well enough.
Needless to say, the performances here are pretty rote too – but then again, with characters this dull, how could they not be? Kriek‘s character is so underwritten that her painfully wooden performance can’t really be blamed on her, and both Carter and Matteo try their hardest in their supporting roles but still can’t make any of the bizarre neighbourly shenanigans stick the landing. Sherwood walks away as the strongest cast member, if only for his ability to, y’know, actually emote – his handling of the horror stuff is a bit more hit and miss, but whenever Zach is in a calm head space Sherwood demonstrates himself as a natural, likeable performer.
It’s a shame then that Don’t Sleep struggles to ever give him the opportunity to explore his character. Zach’s history is relegated to jumpy flashbacks, and their only purpose is to fill in the gaps rather than to re-contextualise the present. They don’t add any meaning or insight into Zach as a person, they just tell us what happened to him as a kid. Flashbacks of this kind should be about character building, but all Don’t Sleep is concerned with is plot.
A Thematic Yawn
This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the film wasn’t leaning on such heavy thematic material that it evidently has no idea how to discuss. At its core, Don’t Sleep touches on traumatic childhoods and repressed memories, both themes that deserve a delicate, smart handling. The film isn’t really interested in that though, instead rushing through them like a checklist and only really bringing them back to attention when the plot requires a conversation about Zach’s childhood. There’s potential here for a genuine character to be formed in Zach, a man with a troubled past trying to make a better present for himself, but that isn’t the guy we get on screen.
Don’t Sleep generally falls flat as a piece of horror film making, too. It’s clearly hampered by a small budget, so some lenience is required here, but director Rick Bieber relies heavily on mistimed jump scares and amateurish makeup for his horror and as a result the film never lands on anything notably frightening. Bieber appropriately builds the tension effectively in the final act – if there’s something this film has going for it, it’s that it’s generally structured pretty well – but he has nothing to pin it on.
Don’t Sleep: Conclusion
In the end, Don’t Sleep probably won’t be making any waves of any form any time soon. There’s some solid elements here for sure (a genuinely unpredictable endgame, some decent structural work, Sherwood‘s charisma and dedication to the role) but it isn’t enough to pull Don’t Sleep out of the ditch it finds itself in very early on. It’s frequently so underwhelming that it crosses over into being flat out boring. Don’t Sleep, says the title, but drifting off is easy to do here.
Where would Don’t Sleep rank among the other horror films this year for you? Tell us down in the comments!
Don’t Sleep is released in the US on 29th September.
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