As scary as sleep paralysis, intense nightmares, etc. are there are very few horror movies that actually deal with these conditions effectively; Sleep (or Schlaf, auf Deutsch) looks set to change all that. Where previous efforts such as deathly dull documentary The Nightmare and so-so Jocelin Donahue vehicle Dead Awake faltered in depicting what actually happens while we’re unconscious onscreen, Michael Venus’s film drags everything into the daylight, blurring the lines between real and imagined to consistently disconcerting effect.
Our heroine is young Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof, a prolific performer in Germany), whose mother, Marlene (Toni Erdmann‘s Sandra Hüller) suffers from a debilitating sleep disorder that renders her paralyzed and terrified on a nightly basis. Marlene is a flight attendant, which really isn’t the best job for somebody with problems sleeping. She has a pig totem that calms her down somewhat, but also has visions of a giant pig, which muddies the waters somewhat. As the film begins, Marlene is frequently seeing an ominous, glaring red hotel sign in her nightmares and decides to try to find it in real life. Her search puts Marlene into a trauma-induced stupor, leading Mona to solve the mystery in her absence.
Sleep‘s nightmares are vividly realized, super colorful constructions, simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. There’s a performance art element to everything we see here, including how the hotel manager sleeps restrained to the bed, that suggests Mona has entered some kind of heightened reality — to quote Clueless, she could be said to be having a Twin Peaks experience. There’s an excellent use of sound throughout, with horrible things heard before we actually see them. Sleep is very strange and evocative but never oppressively so, with compelling performances across the board, including from side characters such as the metalhead hotel maid.
There’s, naturally, a town-wide conspiracy at the heart of Sleep, the intricacies of which are drip fed effectively throughout the film. The inner machinations of it are topical, especially at this particular moment in time, but even putting all of the more fantastical elements aside, Venus’s story, which he co-wrote with Thomas Friedrich, is one rooted in female strength and perseverance. It’s also a touching mother-daughter tale in which, happily, there’s no instance of Mona turning on Marlene due to her inability to get well. And it’s to Venus’s, who’s making his feature debut, immense credit that the freakier stuff hits just as hard as the emotional payoff when they’re finally reunited.
WICKED RATING: 7/10