Goya famously once quoted, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” Stephen King once used this famous quote in a modified form: “This inhuman place breeds human monsters.” Gustavo Hernandez, a director who scored a strong debut with La casa muda (The Silent House) in 2010, seems to have wanted to compose an elegy to the first (this being an Argentinian-Uruguayan-Spanish co-production) with centering the story around an experiment. The experiment in question has actors stepping into Alma Bohm’s (Belen Rueda) drama team and subjecting themselves to sleep deprivation in order to find some truth in performance. At least, this is what I think this is; the movie is rather ill-defined in what it wants, but one would never notice because the first 45 minutes are mostly setup and not much else.
In defense of the movie’s premise, experiments in sleep deprivation were an actual thing. During the 1970s and 80s, researchers subjected participants to sessions in which they remained awake for extended periods of time. The goal was to see how long the human body could tolerate hours and hours of sleeplessness, and how this would affect the mind. When we step into the movie we see a young woman (Maria Zabay) wandering disheveled, through a darkened hallway. She seems to be drawn to something as-yet-unseen. All the while, we listen to soft yet urgent rustling sounds. The woman, who we learn is an actress of certain prestige named Marlene, comes upon a sinister-looking old woman frantically brushing her hair, her eyes locked into an unseen force, terrified. When Marlene leaves she is suddenly attacked by a horrific creature, it’s face obscured by a gauze. We then realize Marlene is the woman brushing her hair. She is a part of Alma Bohm’s bizarre experiment, and when the camera slowly zooms on Bohm’s sadistically satisfied face we know exactly what we are stepping into.
It’s a pity that Bianca (Eva de Dominici), is oblivious to the trap she’s about to walk into. An aspiring actress of notable talent, she gets bamboozled into participating in Bohm’s experiment. Bohm is using the entire sleep deprivation to conduct a performance based on a mother suffering from postpartum depression who attempted to kill her infant child. She gets pitted against her friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina), who also happens to be a professional rival. Bianca has a backstory that gets some exploration. Her father (Miguel Angel Maciel) has his own demons that he is unable to put to rest. When his mental lapse almost kills Bianca, he commits himself to a mental facility. In a way, Bianca follows suit as she walks into a former mental hospital that is now Bohm’s headquarters.
Much of You Shall Not Sleep‘s first half is set-up peppered with slight jump scares that don’t ring as earned. Really, the hand placed on a shoulder, or a ghoulish face suddenly appearing, complete with the stinger? Snore, yawn, no. It is, however, rather interesting to see Dominici, de Molina, and Rueda interact amongst each other, with Rueda playing a cross between late-period Joan Crawford and Philip Zimbardo with relished bitchiness. The girls are interchangeable — both complement each other as ingenues — but Dominici has the meatier role as the wait trapped in a Gothic enclave trying to solve a mystery.
The second half of the movie ramps up the horror, but just a bit. Too much time gets spent in narratives that don’t really correlate with the story or the horror ambiance. Bianca manages to leave the place, and her departure serves as an interesting yet also uninspired choice by the director. Is she truly out of the shadows or still “trapped” in the scary hospital? I’ll leave that for you to decide, and it’s really nothing clever. However, the movie decides to pull out all the stops and disclose what it is really about in a series of revelations that would make Rosemary’s Baby blush and M Night Shyamalan proud. That in itself is not a compliment. Perhaps it may have worked on paper, but on screen, it looks like a cop-out. And those jump-scares just keep on coming.
You Shall Not Sleep has an intriguing premise and enough ambiance to warrant a view, but is an overreaching mess that will not merit its run time. Hernandez could have made a disturbing psychodrama of identity and yielded chilling effects and memorable performances from everyone involved, but instead goes the way of tired genre tropes and telegraphing it’s own secret way before it actually arrives.