By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Maggie Q, Kristen Bush and Sam Troughton
Directed by Jonathan Hopkins
Written by Richard Hobley and Jonathan Hopkins
The frightening phenomenon of sleep paralysis has already been given a pretty definitive screen treatment in Rodney Ascher’s documentary THE NIGHTMARE, which mixed interviews with chilling recreations. SLUMBER makes a decent go of giving it a full narrative treatment (also “inspired by real accounts”), but is ultimately undone by familiarity, even if you haven’t seen Ascher’s film.
That includes an opening prologue of childhood trauma that motivates the grown-up protagonist in the present, as a little girl named Alice witnesses her brother being taken away by a shadowy demon, though not the demon itself. Years later, Alice (Maggie Q, also an executive producer) works at the Whittingham Sleep Center and is afflicted by nocturnal disturbances herself, as does her young daughter Niamh (Sophia Wiseman). Motivated to help others with the same trauma as hers, Alice takes on a whopper of a case when Sarah and Charlie Morgan (Kristen Bush and Sam Troughton) come to her for help. They and their little daughter Emily (Honor Kneafsey) have been engaging in strange sleepwalking behavior, while her brother Daniel (Lucas Bond) has been suffering from sleep paralysis, in which he lies awake but unable to move, and seeing increasingly frightening manifestations of what appears to be the same phantom that took Alice’s brother.
First-time feature director Jonathan Hopkins, working from a script he wrote with Richard Hobley, gets a good case of the creeps going in scenes of the entire family enacting or experiencing scary stuff all at once. His control of mood in general is commendable (kudos also to cinematographer Polly Morgan), even as the overall arc of the story is none too surprising. Same goes for some of the details: Henry Fuseli’s famous painting “The Nightmare” makes its latest of countless appearances here as Alice delves into research on beings known as nocnitsa, “night hags,” etc.; inevitably, someone says, “It has so many names…”
That character is Amado, grandfather of one of Alice’s orderlies, who once underwent both an extreme case of sleep paralysis and extreme self-applied methods of dealing with it, played broadly by former Dr. Who Sylvester McCoy. (One wonders if he compared notes with Troughton, whose grandfather Patrick was the second actor to play The Doctor.) Amado’s late appearance tips SLUMBER’s hand as to its influences: It’s a retread of the POLTERGEIST scenario, and Amado is its Tangina, the eccentric who becomes pivotal to the effort to rid the story’s central family of the spirit afflicting them.
The climax also springs a number of traditional tricks, following up on a handful of jump-scares sprinkled throughout the preceding 70 minutes or so. Hopkins’ horrormeistering in SLUMBER is in fact less effective overall than the dramatic, character-oriented developments, as when Charlie, who attacks Daniel during one nighttime episode, is hauled off by the authorities as an abusive father. McCoy’s over-the-top antics aside, the performances are all fine and naturalistic, and with a few more surprises and original turns, SLUMBER could have been a real contender. As it stands, it will certainly keep you awake and alert throughout, even if it won’t give you any nightmares later.