As sub-genres of horror go, torture porn certainly isn’t for everyone. With it’s extreme presentation of visceral brutality and often poorly fleshed out stories-as-pretense, these films can be difficult for broad audiences to swallow. When the filmmakers are talented enough or the premises are ridiculous enough, a particular entry might rise above the morass and become part of the popular lexicon (looking at you, Human Centipede), but most amount to little more than questionably necessary exercises in self-abuse for the viewer. The new Russian horror film Sleepless Beauty falls decidedly into the second category. With a story that is weak to the point of non-existent, the film is comprised almost exclusively by scenes of a woman being tortured. And while there are definitely moments of graphic pain that will leave viewers shocked and squirming, there’s almost nothing else to make the experience feel worthwhile when it comes to its merciful conclusion.
The setup for Sleepless Beauty is fairly simple, yet somehow still manages to come off as unnecessarily confusing: some unidentified group wants some ambassador’s wife to kill her husband for some reason that’s probably political or whatever. To this end, they are experimenting with a new assassination technique. The subject of the experiment is a young woman named Mila (Polina Davydova), who spends far too much time in the opening scenes pumping gas and buying fish before getting kidnapped by a masked man (Evgeniy Gagarin), who takes her to a dingy, industrial basement. Shortly after her arrival, a voice comes in over the loudspeaker to explain the rules of her captivity: there will be no sleeping, and her days will be rigorously segmented into such blocks as Morning Routine, Exercise, Morning Activities, Entertainment, and Virtual Reality Immersion. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Mila, the entire experiment will be live-streamed to some dark web chat room where the administrators can comment on their progress, and other sick randos can provide the sort of deranged stream-of-consciousness nattering and vitriol that you might see on your average YouTube video of a six-year-old’s birthday party.
Once the basics are established, we discover that pretty much all the parts of Mila’s day are really just different forms of torture. A voice on the loudspeaker purporting to be her aborted child orders her to fish a baby doll out of a bucket of human remains. She is forced to play a trivia game against an opponent with a sack over her head in which the loser is killed. She’s placed in a coffin full of rats. And so on and so forth until the combination of sleeplessness and trauma leave her a quivering, speechless mess who will kill anyone she is placed in a room with. Or something.
While many of these torture scenes are twisted and gory enough to turn the stomachs of the most seasoned veterans of the genre, the vicious brutality somehow manages to be just about the only good part of the movie. The “story” — if we may use the term as loosely as possible — consists primarily of a brief setup about the ambassador and some completely extraneous scenes of investigators searching unsuccessfully for Mila that offer no real new information, but do effectively pad out the runtime far more than should be necessary in an eigthty-three minute film. The pacing is simply interminable. Between the detective scenes and the extensive cleanup that the masked captor conducts after each torture session, the film seems to drag on endlessly. This is probably meant to create a sense of tension, but instead just gives you an excruciating amount of extra opportunities to check your player’s progress bar and be disappointed. If you’re watching the English dubbed version, you will be treated to some of the worst voiceover acting so bad that it will make the prospect of a masked stranger attacking you with a cattle prod seem much more appealing by comparison. And while the cinematography is surprisingly good for a film with such limited locations, the rest of the visuals are laughably terrible. The framing device of the chat window graphics look like something an intern might have designed as a placeholder, and when we finally get a glimpse of what Mila is seeing in her “VR Immersion,” it looks like the Terry Gilliam animations from Monty Python were rebooted for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycleandbefore getting punched up by a high school art class full of angsty goth teens until they could finally merit a hard R.
Verdict: 1 out of 5 stars:
While fans of the torture porn horror genre may get a thrill out of some of the more horrifying moments, even they will be bored by most of the filler, of which there is plenty. Absolutely no one should ever be subjected to this movie, unless they are actively being held captive in a basement while being subjected to psychological torture, and even then they should only do so under extreme protest.