By Keri O’Shea
I always make it a point never to read reviews of new films I’m about to review: some people may be better than I am at filtering out the opinions of others before forming one of their own, but it’s not so for me. I find it virtually impossible not to carry some weight of expectation, for good or ill, away. However, as soon as I’ve sat through said new film, I’ll then measure my opinion against other people’s…and here’s where I come to The Sleeping Room. As a very new movie (screening at last year’s Frightfest, as the promo material proudly says in its first line) there aren’t many reviews around as of yet, but when I read them, I wondered in all honesty if we’d seen the same film. Other voices declare The Sleeping Room a triumph of indie filmmaking, a bastion of atmosphere and innovation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any of that.
Let me start with the bare bones of the plot. We start in Brighton, England: indeed we’re reminded that we are in fact in Brighton multiple times, with the word ‘BRIGHTON’ up on screen for good measure on several occasions, but I digress. We start with an injured teenage girl lying on the beach – from which point we are taken back in time, to find out what has brought her to this low and bloody ebb. Turns out Blue (Leila Mimmack) is a prostitute. She works for the good-hearted but business-minded madam Cynthia (Julie Graham, chronically underused here) and by-the-by, her hard bastard boyfriend (David Sibley – again chronically underused). One day, Blue fulfils an appointment at a once grandiose but now dilapidated Victorian property in town, meeting up with a punter named Bill (Joseph Beattie), who presumably fancies a break from the renovation work he’s doing there. Bill’s a nice enough guy, albeit nervy, but whilst he doesn’t end up having sex with Blue after all, they both quickly notice that there’s something rather odd about the house – finding tucked-away rooms, two-way glass and other dodgy examples of home decor befitting of its former use as a brothel. But there’s more. A quick peek into an old Mutoscope (think ‘What The Butler Saw’) and some old photos puts Blue onto the trail of a mystery. Cue long-buried family ties, hints of murder and of incest – which trigger a haunting, putting Blue and those near her at risk.
It’s not the first time of late that I’ve seen old film reels or similar being used as the trigger for supernatural events: The Canal, which also did the rounds of a few film festivals such as Abertoir last year, uses an almost identical premise, even actually using a film archivist as the central character and having him unearth via his work the grisly past of his house – and I really do feel for films which, through no fault of their own, just happen to emerge at around the same time that a similar film does. This must be immensely galling for all concerned. However, where the well of sympathy dries up is when one of those films is just far superior to the other; I wasn’t a huge fan of The Canal, all told, but it boasts some superbly creepy sequences and a weighty build-up of dread as its vulnerable lead character comes unstuck. There were several reasons why I couldn’t feel anything like that invested in The Sleeping Room.
The first is in how the plot plays out. It’s all just a little too simplistic, a little sing-song. A prostitute (who never actually seems to have sex) visits a customer and immediately sees a range of glaringly obvious plot pointers that he obviously didn’t, despite being at the house on his own for a far longer period of time. Suddenly, all the little quirks and features of the house are laid bare, even vast structural things which have gone unnoticed, all because Blue turns up. Now, I get that the plot implies that she’s somehow ‘drawn’ there, but still. Episodes of Scooby Doo have played their cards closer to their chests and used more subtlety than this. This type of heavy-handed exposition goes on throughout, too; the audience isn’t really trusted to draw their own conclusions about what’s happening, and so it all gets spoken or spelled out, which is a crying shame: some of the strongest supernatural yarns play with ambiguity (and I am not counting the ending as ambiguity, by the way.) The film’s strongest visual tic is certainly in its use of the Mutoscope idea as the trigger for the ghostly goings-on, and it was really interesting to see this being used on screen, but then the version of What Blue Saw, the apparent films looked like something from a rock video (which now I look at the credits and see these sequences were directed by Jake West, is no surprise). It didn’t fulfil its promise of something truly exciting, nor is it a convincing period piece. it just felt like bits of Kill List in black and white.
I mentioned earlier that I thought Julie Graham and David Sibley should have been given more to do: I’d stand by this, as the older actors in this film really steal the show. Where it comes to lead girl Blue, though, I can’t help but think she doesn’t peg things together very well. Was she deliberately being played as restrained and monotone, to show how much she’s had to immure against a life of apparent prostitution and abandonment? Maybe. This could again be where the atmosphere I’ve seen debated just didn’t happen for me, but personally, I found Blue to be a character where there was not much suggestion of an inner life and even less nuance, even in how she faced some very odd, dangerous situations. Everything (save for a few life-threatening scenes) was met with the same flat tone and facial expression. As she is on screen more than anyone else here, you really need to believe in her and feel for her, but man, is it difficult to do so. Overall, via the plot development and the performances in it, this was a very two-dimensional film which simply didn’t achieve any scares or surprises.
There’s some serious pedigree behind The Sleeping Room: its director John Shackleton co-wrote the sparky Panic Button (2011) and another writer they have on board for this is none other than Alex Chandon, so it’s a shame to get so little enjoyment out of this first feature-length film by Shackleton. But, hey ho; judging by the London film scene love-in in the credits (I spotted Greg Day and Alan Jones as well as Messrs Chandon and West) this is a well-supported piece of indie cinema with many friends out there. I just can’t count myself amongst them.
The Sleeping Room is available On Demand from 27th April 2015 and on DVD from 11th May 2015.