Slumber Review – This Groggy Sleep Paralysis Thriller Is Less Nightmare, More Lullaby
Starring Maggie Q, Sylvester McCoy, Kristen Bush, Sam Troughton, Vincent Andriano, Honor Kneafsey, Lucas Bon
Directed by Jonathan Hopkins
Sleep paralysis is an understatedly traumatic, very real medical phenomenon that plagues far more resting bodies than you might expect. Effects include feeling a weight pressing down on your chest, physical incapacitation and descriptions of a blurry figure standing near, over or around bedframes. Primo horror fodder, right? Movies like Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare and Phillip Guzman’s Dead Awake range from documentary to fabricated thriller, vying to transition personal “victim” accounts into on-screen curses. Art imitating life, hopeful to entertain and educate in one devastating swoop.
The same goes for Jonathan Hopkins’ Slumber, 2017’s latest addition to the “sleep paralysis” stockpile – emerging from the middle of this already struggling pack, I may add. At times stunningly shot and invasively realized, yet unfulfilling when it comes to the promise of any such “horror” at all. We still don’t have that seminal classic of bedridden torture, but for more forgiving (patient? easier-to-tease?) audiences? Hopkins’ experiment may not be the drowsiest affair.
Maggie Q stars as sleep pattern specialist Alice Arnolds. Ever since her brother passed at a young age due to an accidental sleepwalking mishap, Alice likens unconscious terrors to scientific facts. That’s until the Morgan family enters Whittingham Sleep Center with a sinister case of restless nights that no doctor can diagnose – for good reason. Could myths and legends about a demonic dream-attacker known as the “Night Hag” be real? Alice first refuses to accept any association to satanic forces, but the more time she spends with Daniel Morgan (Lucas Bond), the less sense reality makes.
I mean, yeah – no spoilers. This is a genre film, so of course Alice is facing off against some “Nocnitsa” legend the institute’s skittish janitor vaguely warns her about. Many films have before revealed this creature to be a blend between Left 4 Dead’s “Witch” and Slenderman, which isn’t far off when Hopkins *finally* decides to reveal his beast way too far into the third act. Save the
best mediocre for last?
Sans one looming background statue stance in a quick opening shot, Slumber opts to portray nightly takeovers mostly with a seeping blackness that spills from all sides of the lens to cover our screens – not a reverse glimpse. Night Hag POV? A different concept, but one that becomes desperately repetitive as we stare at a petrified child’s face for the tenth time instead of an actual monster. The clouding darkness a cop-out, never to visually suffocate like a psychological toxin.
Cinematographer Polly Morgan works landscapes and scenery to tighten some situational slack, whether it be a lingering hold on the entrance of a gutted greenhouse or pensive framing of soon-to-be victims. There’s an unfortunate production preconception that pops into your head upon hearing the word “indie,” but Slumber does right to fight such stereotypes. There’s everything nightmare-worthy about a stretched-out hallway with minimal illumination, and distant camera positioning does everything to capitalize on expected set-pieces. You know the overhead nocturnal views and editing darts towards open bedroom doors that await. It helps to know that Hopkins does too, and his vision hopes to capture the most artistic take of each subgenre necessity – not a saving grace alone, but a definite light that shines favorably down an undefined path.
Refocusing on the Night Hag herself, method and backstory seem to service circumstance more than sleep paralysis. A demon driven by an appetite for Daniel’s soul, able to control his entire family as long as they remain asleep. Translation? Mrs. Sandman can Freddy Krueger and hop dream to dream while also puppeting close-proximity snoozers. Kind of lessens the sting of the paralysis itself, scenes drawn away from Daniel’s frozen body to check on what little Emily (Honor Kneafsey) is chopping up with garden shears or – wait, it gets worse during the finale? A very Freddy Vs. Jason rescue attempt? Not to besmirch the slasher crossover one iota, but Slumber leans so heavily into the creature aspects even though bedroom invasions are depicted in ways to hide the Hag at all costs. Almost as if the film remains at war with itself.
That’s not to say the Morgan family doesn’t suffer some unsightly torments – a father cradling air (not his dead baby), mom recklessly blending midnight smoothies. Fear their uncontrollable sleepwalking and unconscious acts of defiance. Yet, now take a movie like Echoes or Dead Awake or – outside the subgenre – the Insidious franchise. Perspective is everything, and when covering sleep paralysis, no viewpoint is more horrific than that of a rigor-mortis-kissed subject unable to even flinch a pinky while some mangled form approaches from afar. Us – the camera – seeing through doomed eyes. Fixated on what we fear most, unable to gaze away. This is the biggest missed opportunity of Hopkins, with a spotlight elsewhere on larger households and psychological investigations. So desperately I yearned to feel the very dehumanizing paranoia Daniel felt himself, but alas, that is not the movie Slumber concludes to be.
Performances may get lost in the overall cues Hopkins triggers, but not forgotten. Maggie Q given a second chance by projecting her own desire to save on Daniel’s family. Honor Kneafsey a tiger-onesied sister who is damn menacing when walking around with sharp objects while in a hypnotic daze – unpredictable in action. Sam Troughton and Kristen Bush the desperate parents who also find themselves in danger of bashing through walls and chopping appendages. Casting is tight where it matters – Sylvester McCoy the wackadoo genre stereotype by way of a rambling old retiree who lives with the memory of the Night Hag’s stalk – just tethered to the film’s larger, convoluted ideas.
In the end, Slumber is an almost-satisfying bedtime horror story about a malevolent affliction – one I’ve suffered, albeit on only a few *thankfully* brief occasions. But that feeling, particularly my arms being held down with nothing I can do, never materializes in the sense of fear during Jonathan Hopkin’s lullaby. Scenes seem to be working harder than they should for a scare given the stakes at play, which is a strange, distracting misstep. Again, you may find enough in a film that stashes all its terrorizing eggs in one last-minute basket – but more hardcore genre lovers should remain hesitant. Not exactly an “AVOID” warning, just be prepared for something more derivative (shaky-cam dream sequences, creatures behind perspectives) than promised.
Slumber is a tug-of-war between boogeyman haunter and psychological destroyer, neither side dealing anything more than serviceable nighttime blows. The horror is there, it’s just oddly ignored – next time just flip the camera?