Uruguayan director Gustavo Hernandez made a splash in 2010 with “La casa muda,” a haunted-house thriller with the conceptual novelty of being ostensibly shot in a single, real-time take. (Actually, as with its less-well-received U.S. remake “Silent House” two years later, that illusion was accomplished via some editorial sleight-of-hand.) Now, with his third feature, “You Shall Not Sleep,” Hernandez moves into the mainstream of Spanish-language genre cinema, with a budget to match, but theresult is too glossy, contrived, and dependent on rote jump scares to raise much of a fright.
No-budget “Casa Muda” had a clammy, ominous atmosphere; “We Shall Not Sleep,” despite good art direction and an abandoned-asylum setting, feels like a convoluted and inorganic rehash of horror tropes from the start. That shouldn’t hurt its commercial prospects (it’s already opened in some South American countries and sold to other territories), but one hopes Hernandez regains some degree of creative idiosyncrasy in the future.
In outline, at least, “Sleep” appears cut from the same conceptual cloth as the director’s prior work, in which dreams, hallucinations, insanity, and the supernatural were difficult for the protagonists (and viewer) to separate. The improved production resources certainly result in a handsome product, particularly in an opening sequence (as well as some later ones) all cast in eerie blues. A woman hiding in a wardrobe emerges to be menaced by specters in an apartment. Later, we realize she’s an actress (Maria Zabay as Marlene) experiencing waking nightmares under the influence of sleep deprivation that stage director Alma Bohm (Belen Rueda) has decided will result in some higher artistic “truth.”
Ten years later (in 1984), another young actress is approached by Bohm’s representative. Bianca (Eva De Dominici) is very flattered at being asked to replace a performer on short notice as the lead in the famed innovator’s latest project. At first, she’s afraid she can’t leave her mentally ill father (Miguel Angel Maciel) alone. But after a violent outburst, his voluntary commitment to a psychiatric institution leaves her free to accept the offer.
Actually, she’s headed towards just such a facility herself — a shuttered one, chosen by La Bohm for her new site-specific piece. Upon arriving, Bianca is displeased to discover she’s actually competing with fellow acting-school classmate Ceci (Natalia de Molina) for the central part of a real-life woman who (we eventually learn) turned homicidally mad, then wrote and performed this play as “drama therapy” before she and the entire institution went up in flames. Also present are older actress Sara (Eugenia Tobal), academic observer Krosso (German Palacios), and Fonzo (Juan Guilera), Alma’s rather creepy son/assistant/enforcer.
As she follows the no-sleep regime, Bianca begins to experience frightening visions that may be supernatural manifestations from dead former residents, evidence of the mental instability she fears inheriting from her father, or simply cruel manipulation by Alma and company in the name of “art.”
The problem is, “You Shall Not Sleep” plays it every which way. The preposterously overblown climax doesn’t choose one explanation; it haphazardly embraces all of them. Given all the unimaginative “boo!” scares and unconvincing plot mechanics preceding it, this denouement — complete with inevitable the-terror-continues! epilogue — underlines that this convoluted contraption doesn’t even care about its own internal logic, or lack thereof.
That might not matter if Hernandez achieved the kind of surreal horror Argento and others once did, in which the flamboyance of fevered set pieces transcended the need for narrative or psychological coherence. But good-looking as “Sleep” is, with all the atmospheric potential of an old sanitorium well-dressed by the design team, it feels like an earthbound studio product overly reminiscent of other recent Spanish horrors. (The presence of top-billed Rueda, who’s revisited this well a few too many times since “The Orphanage,” only exacerbates a sense of tired déjà vu.)
The action should keep us guessing whether it’s being driven by malevolent spirits or madness, but the uninspired, workmanlike execution seems touched by neither. It doesn’t help that one can never quite tell whether pretty TV-veteran lead De Dominici isn’t much of an actress, is playing someone with that liability, or both. In any case, she is not a performer equipped to render possible insanity vivid — not with this little aid from script or direction.
The result is a polished but nonsensical time-killer that almost dares audiences not to think too hard (or at all), lest it fall apart while they’re still watching. True to recent Spanish horror conventions, there’s a (more late-breaking than usual) sentimental streak involving children, which here plays like an almost contemptuously rote afterthought. There have been worse movies of its ilk. But this slick, silly goosing machine feels like a particular letdown because it might’ve been made by any clock-punching veteran, and it’s too early in his career for the promising Hernandez to be doing such impersonal, formulaic work.