Although its technical aspects are more successful than its plot and characters, torture-horror “Sleepless Beauty” makes for an interesting watch.
Excessive and explicit violence on screen always leads to questions about whether such images are necessary. If a director packs their movie with medieval torture and bodily trauma, does that violence serve a purpose, or is it simply a sadistic celebration of gore that delights in human pain? Is the audience expected to enjoy the blood and torture, or are they likely to have a more complex viewing experience? After watching the trailer for Sleepless Beauty, a torture horror film from director Pavel Khvaleev, I’ll admit that I had low expectations for the film as far as it’s use of violence, and I prepared myself for excessive gore with little meaning or thought behind it. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Sleepless Beauty, which, although by no means groundbreaking or flawless, makes a definite attempt to substantiate its numerous torture scenes with a bit of social commentary. While it does not succeed in every instance, Sleepless Beauty aims to create a sympathetic victim, explore her mental state, and ask relevant questions that go beyond the blood and guts on screen.
While admiring her new pet fish in the safety of her apartment, a young teacher named Mila (Polina Davydova) is drugged, kidnapped, and dumped into an eerie garage-like facility in an unknown location. She wakes up to the sound of a hauntingly robotic voice from a loudspeaker, which welcomes her to “Recreation,” an experimental program run by unknown individuals. Over the next few days, Mila is subjected to excruciating mental and physical torture, including horrific “challenges” that force her to perform disgusting and immoral tasks in order to survive. Her captors also force her to watch hours of nightmarish virtual reality sequences, filled with images of a twisted Freudian hellscape. The one rule of Recreation is that Mila isn’t allowed to sleep. “Any attempts to sleep,” as the loudspeaker voice tells her, and “will be disrupted.” Meanwhile, the whole ordeal is live streamed for a select, private audience who tune in each day for some sadistic entertainment. Despite the psychological damage inflicted upon her, Mila is unaware that she is part of something much bigger than herself.
At first glance, Sleepless Beauty may seem like it’s all about the shocking visuals with is extensive torture scenes; however, there is clearly a system to the horror and suspense that works to create a constant state of dread. First, Sleepless Beauty excels at creating a fearful soundscape, including suspenseful white noise and the shrill beeps and electronic whirring of Recreation that prevent Mila from falling asleep. Second, although we do not actually see any characters sitting in front of a desk and watching hidden camera footage of Mila, the film creates the sense that there is definitely a person watching in evil delight as our hero fights to maintain her sanity. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being in the dark and feeling someone breathe on your neck. You never see them, but you know for sure they are there. Sleepless Beauty opens with what appears to be home video and security camera footage, instantly making us aware of the haunting, lingering presence of some unknown person who must be in a basement somewhere watching the unsuspecting Mila. It’s a fantastic tactic that asks the audience to sympathize with Mila from the start. Throughout the film, Sleepless Beauty continually reminds us of this presence by pulling away from the claustrophobic torture chamber and showing the live stream screen, complete with its live chat (The version I watched for this review, which was dubbed from the original Russian, did not provide a translation for the live chat, so I did have to read some background information about the film to figure out exactly what was going on). With a nearly tangible presence of sadistic evil, the film sets us up to root for Mila all the more.
However, this villainous presence alone is not enough to sustain the audience’s sympathy for or interest in Mila throughout the entire film. The technical aspects of the film may successfully set us up to truly care about the protagonist, and Davydova certainly does an excellent job with what she is given in the script, but as Sleepless Beauty unfolds, it doesn’t give Mila a whole lot of substance. It drops a few hints about Mila’s character traits throughout her time in Recreation, such as a riddle ordeal that points to her intellectual abilities, but these details are so brief and sporadic that they do not come together to create a cohesive character. Although it seems, at first, like the torture inflicted upon Mila is meant to be deeply psychological and will therefore reveal something significant about her character, the final result of the story doesn’t fit together as nicely as all that. In fact, as the secrets of Recreation unfold, Mila becomes less and less important, making Sleepless Beauty a bit unbalanced despite its handful of successful elements.
While there is meaning and commentary to be found in Sleepless Beauty, the film suffers because its two narrative ideas, one revolving around Mila and the other around Recreation, just don’t work together. Still, for those interested in horror and the conversations around trauma and violence on screen, Sleepless Beauty is worth the watch. With a bleak and surreal design, it has several interesting tidbits to offer the torture horror genre, even if it doesn’t get everything quite right.
Available on VOD and Digital Tuesday, November 10, 2020
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"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."