Sleepless Beauty [Grimmfest Review]: Recreational Torture
The ‘Torture Porn’ genre has been slowly dying out in mainstream Horror for a while now, as with all genres there are trends that peak and fall over and over, but at the moment it seems to be much less prominent than it was in it’s 2000’s resurgence. That being said it does rear is splattery head in Russian horror Sleepless Beauty that brings back the torture whilst adding sleep deprivation and hallucinogenic virtual reality torment to the mix.
Mila (Polina Davydova), a young unassuming woman, is kidnapped and held in a warehouse rigged up with plenty of cameras and seemingly streaming live to the dark web. Over loudspeaker in the room she is introduced to the shady company that has abducted her, Recreation, and given rules to follow including sleep being disallowed whilst held there. She is given a strict schedule that includes immersive virtual reality that functions to twist and warp her mind in what appears to be a psychological experiment.
The film uses its setting well, switching between traditional filming and video chat footage from the security cameras to show the comments of both the voyeuristic paying viewers and the strange cryptic admins who seem to have a plan for this woman that isn’t just exploiting her for dark web enjoyment. Mila suffers through her torment, to both the entertainment and often disregard of the online viewers, for ten days. She is beaten, trapped in a coffin with live rats and even tormented with her previous decision to have an abortion by being forced to fish through a medical waste bucket to retrieve what we, of course, presume is a fetus whilst hearing a young girls voice verbally abuse her. She is alone, being watched and monitored and only ever visited by an unnamed man in a black mask (Evgeniy Gagarin) who forcefully ensures she completes her tasks.
“It is a segment of beautiful nightmare fuel accompanied by piercing sound that etches into your brain and it stands out amongst a film that offers a lot of familiarity in its other sequences.”
The film doesn’t hang around and gets straight into the facility, which usually is a good sign meaning this is going to be a fast paced high octane Horror, unfortunately for Sleepless Beauty this means we know nothing about the protagonist and causes that the torture and trials she goes through to feel drawn out. Although we clearly can sympathise with her and her terrifying situation the film doesn’t inform us about her in any way. The B-plot feels strangely out of place at times, beginning with the attempted assassination of a Russian ambassador and following the attempts of a Detective, hired by Mila’s father, to locate the missing woman. It does manage to tie itself together at the end quite impressively, unfortunately getting to this climax can feel like a long process of watching a woman be tortured for unknown reasons.
A major highlight of this film is the animated visual segment that kicks in during the third act. Just like the anonymous chat users I was curious to see what Mila saw as soon as the virtual reality headset was introduced. I was not disappointed. Think Jan Svankmajer’s surrealism, combined with H.R Geiger’s biomechanical features and stylised with Terry Gilliam’s cut-out animation and you’re on the right track. It is a segment of beautiful nightmare fuel accompanied by piercing sound that etches into your brain and it stands out amongst a film that offers a lot of familiarity in its other sequences.
There’s a hint towards Martyrs with the use of a woman being tortured for the ulterior gains of a clandestine company lacking morals but it doesn’t reach the emotional and psychological heights of that film because it lacks a certain amount of character development. At points it feels like torture for torture’s sake. The online aspect brings to mind the Hostel franchise and it’s clear there is inspiration taken from other torture franchises as well, such as Saw. The tortures are often inventive but the lack of understanding behind them can often dim their appeal.
This is director Pavel Khvaleev’s fourth feature film and it seems he had a hand in a lot of the elements including cinematography, editing and visual effects. His vision is clear and is executed well, the sound design is effectively intrusive and the animation was a real highlight, however it is in it’s narrative and plotting that Sleepless Beauty loses its momentum. It may not be perfect but it manages to bring some social commentary about our relationship to violence through to the surface and ends with traumatic nihilism. Clearly that was the point all along.