By Alex Brannan.
If one were to just slightly retool Phillip Guzman’s Sleep No More (aka 200 Hours) – eliminate the gore and profanity, shift the characters’ ages, move the time period back a couple decades, and make the least consequential character a canine – the film could easily pass as a Scooby-Doo adaptation. One part psychological mystery, one part supernatural thriller, the plot of Sleep No More is in the same vein as something the Scooby gang would investigate. Except, this clearly wasn’t what Guzman gunned for with his gritty thriller.
For the most part, the ensemble of graduate student characters fits into the archetypes of the animated sleuths. We are introduced to their personalities in a montage of administrative hearings following a freak accident that occurs on their watch during a medical trial. The Velma type, sporting the same wealth of knowledge and styled with the same hair and glasses, is Frannie (Brea Grant). Dale (Stephen Ellis) is the Shaggy, wide-eyed and quick with the comic relief. The headstrong leader (the Fred figure) is Joe (Keli Price). He is willing to complete their medical experiment, at any cost.
Unfortunately for Joe, the university is ready to shut down the trials of their experimental drug, Cogniphan, after an undergraduate subject commits suicide. The grad students only have access to the university lab and equipment for two weeks, when no one will be on site. The only way to complete the experiment now is for the researchers to administer the Cogniphan on themselves. The goal: go 200 hours without sleep in the hopes of reaching a “lucidity point,” beyond which sleep is no longer a human necessity. Facing possible suspension, or worse, the students are desperate. Despite the potential dangers, they move forward with the experiment.
Along the way, there are numerous holes in scientific logic. It’s frustrating to see characters at a high level of academia lack a basic understanding of the experimental method, while Jason Murphy’s script excuses their short-sightedness by rendering them blinded by their end goal. In one scene, characters trade fallacious reasons for why they must continue their experiment, even through their results have been tainted by multiple variables. “[The university] can’t argue with [our findings], no matter how sloppy our method is.” “Imperfect results are better than … nothing.” The commitment to the project is life and death to these characters, but that they admit the flaws without acknowledging the inevitable failure is only humorous. Through this lens, Sleep No More makes for an effective dark comedy. That they don’t seem to hear the words coming out of their mouths yields a dramatic irony that tickles, much more than the smoky supernatural presence terrifies.
This blank-faced apparition is an increasing presence in the action. The more present it is, the less palpable the tension is. Visual effects are the major culprit here. Sometimes the ghost appears as a shimmer, sometimes as an ashen face being cloaked in black clouds of smoke, and in both cases the computer effect does not mesh with the surroundings. Because the effect lacks cohesion with the real-world set, the creature does not have a tangible presence when it is in the same frame as one of the characters.
What fares better is the makeup work. In key scenes, the makeup helps depict visceral horrors of the body. This is in stark contrast to the lacking atmospheric tension attempted by the visual effects. While perhaps a step too far – the lacerations and gauges crafted by the makeup department lend themselves more to torture fetishizing than supernatural spookiness – the aesthetic is disturbingly effective.
Sleep No More has an intriguing, if not well-trod, premise. The scientist-experimenting-on-self trope is certainly nothing new. It extends back as far as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and has been the conceit of many films with varying success rates. Here, it serves its function of limiting the action to a confined area and illustrating massive hubris in its researcher-subjects. What it fails to do is convince us of the psychological implications of such an experiment. In its denouement, the film attempts a rapid, ill-defined twist that truly falls flat, mainly because the potential psychological fallout from the experimentation is not adequately probed earlier in the film. But even without this final scene, Sleep No More doesn’t provide the cerebral psychological terror or the supernatural scares that it sets out to conjure. As such, it is rather flaccid in the tension department. There may be a kernel of inspiration in the sleepless conceit, but it is never expounded upon in a manner that would make for an exciting experience. The comedy of the characters’ errors is amusing enough to keep one’s attention, but these aren’t teenagers coasting along rural roads at night in a green van. There is no grand unmasking of the ghost to reveal a disgruntled neighborhood ne’er-do-well who would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling grad students. No, these are just people who are bad at their jobs, and ultimately there is little to their downfall that is compelling.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.