Merriam-Webster defines horror as ‘creating intense terror, dread, or shock.’ For specific audience members, this definition holds true above all else. A horror movie needs to scare them to be marked as a success. The sense of unease, never sure where or when the evil, be it a slasher killer, ghost, demon, etc., will strike next. The fear of what injuries/ torment will befall the characters or the disgust at seeing what happens to them is what captivates this kind of horror fan. Consider The Blair Witch Project or A Nightmare On Elm Street. Without the eldritch atmosphere, these horror offerings would be hollow and unremarkable for these folks.
“All the pieces are there for a creepy tale.”
On the other hand, another definition for horror, from the same source, states that the medium of choice need only have a ‘frightening or disturbing quality or aspect’ to it. A viewer preferring this style would be enthralled when the traditional horror imagery such as gore, ghosts, demons, etc., are there but utilized to for an entirely different purpose beyond instilling fear. The imagery is just as eerie, but the grotesque now comes from within the characters, and the emotional and mental stakes have more weight than the physical. Think of movies such as It Follows or The Sixth Sense.
Of course, in the best genre fare, both types of horror are being enacted concurrently, such as in John Carpenter’s The Thing or The Conjuring series.
The difference between those two definitions is not that one is proactive, and the other is neutral. No, the difference is which definition you respond to more. Depending on where you land on the horror spectrum, you’ll either enjoy writer-director Rick Bieber’s latest genre entry, Don’t Sleep, or you’ll be frustrated by it. All the pieces are there for a creepy tale- impressive special effects makeup for the various nightmare visions, a crazy twist, solid acting, and an excellent score. But it is never frightening, lacking even a most basic jump scare. While jump scares can be lazy, the fact that this doesn’t even attempt them does say something about the intentions of the movie.
“…it is never frightening, lacking even a most basic jump scare.”
Those intentions are laid out with the engaging and original plot. A young man, Zach (Dominic Sherwood), is having recurring nightmares, making him afraid to sleep. These intense and creepy dreams are similar to things that happened to him when he was 12 years-old. This lack of sleep is wreaking havoc on him, and the evil dreams of fantastical demons in the woods bleed into his waking moments. He seeks out help from the same professional that helped him out all those years ago, Dr. Richard Sommers (Cary Elwes). As the mystery of what he is seeing comes to light, things come to a head, Zach becomes convinced that the doctor and Zach’s girlfriend, Shawn (Charlbi Dean Kriek), know more than they have let on. Is that the case, or are the nightmares overwhelming him and causing him to lash out at those closest to him?
The twists and turns it takes, especially at the end, are unexpected and keep the audience engaged to the very end. Certain elements should have been introduced a bit sooner than they are, so the audience could feel their full impact when the movie comes full circle at the end. But that they aren’t put to use right away, doesn’t hurt the story too much. Plus, the ending will rattle around in your head for days after the movie is over. That is in part thanks to the well developed characters, all of whom have multiple dimensions and feel realistic. Bieber has an excellent grasp on these people and the horrors they are experiencing. He is helped along by a stellar cast, all of whom deliver splendid and appealing performances; Elwes hasn’t been this strong in years.
“…the ending will rattle around in your head for days.”
As a director, Bieber isn’t quite as capable as he is a writer. Mind you, the outlandish and gnarly imagery are presented in a more fantasy-esque atmosphere, and clearly, a considerable amount of time and dedication was put into them by special effects makeup artist Chris Mills III and his team. The creatures’ design, especially a mask which becomes very significant, are elegant and phenomenal. The amount of detail put into this aspect is staggering, considering the low budget. But, that is the special effects team, not the directing. Bieber lacks visual panache, so a lot of the movie looks like a Lifetime channel movie, with standard medium shots and little else to really captivate the audience on a visual level. The lack of scares and conspicuous absence of tension probably stem from this, and from the heavy focus on the characters, not the fantastical.
If you go into Don’t Sleep expecting to be scared, you will be disappointed. But if you are looking for a decent plot, good acting, and very impressive effects, give it a watch.
Don’t Sleep Directed by Rick Bieber. Written by Rick Bieber. Starring Dominic Sherwood, Cary Elwes, Charlbi Dean Kriek, Jill Hennessy, Alex Rocco, and Drea de Matteo.