The beautifully constructed, wildly confounding, and oddly satisfying Sleep by Michael Venus is a Lynchian dreamscape for the modern age.
The German psychological thriller is a murky trip to a terrible place where anything is possible even the rise of the Nazis. Despite the gorgeous landscape, this is a nightmarish reality where Grimm fairy tales and deadly secrets meet in a nexus of abuse, betrayal, and vengeance. Sleep takes a familiar premise and gives it a fresh viewpoint. Part Nightmare On Elm Street, part The Shining, with a dash of The Others thrown in, Sleep is a creative melding of many classics.
Marlene is plagued by intense nightmares that leave her breathless and deeply troubled. After a particularly bad nightmare, her daughter Mona urges her to seek medical help. Against her daughter’s advice, she decides to instead track down the mysterious people and places that appear in her dreams. When she falls into a stupor and is rushed to the hospital Mona must pick up the pieces to save herself and her mother.
Mona travels to the same austere but attractive hotel her mother did days before where she meets hotel owner Otto(August Schmölzer) who is delightfully impish as his barely controlled inner demons leak out. Schmölzer masterfully builds a character that is aging but still dangerous in ideas and influence. His malevolence is tinged with the smile and faked banality of a middle-aged businessman. His equally interesting wife Lore played by Marion Kracht is beleaguered by her husband and her own conscience. She is an enabler who hates herself for it.
Before she can even unpack, things veer into a weird territory where ghosts of the past literally haunt Mona’s present. What are they trying to tell her and why? With more than enough ambiguity at the end to satisfy even the most discerning mindbend lover, Sleep is a lost highway you can’t escape from.
Coolheaded and brave Mona does what her mother tried and failed to do. She is the glue that holds everything together and makes everything possible. Through a series of ever-escalating insanities designed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy Mona learns her mother wasn’t mentally ill, she was haunted by something or someone. Nearing the final third of the movie Mona channels someone very connected to herself and Otto at a dinner party that must be seen to be believed. Seances, possession, and spirit animals all make an appearance. The final act flies by in a flurry of panic, misty dreams, and dangerous liaisons.
Micheal Venus isn’t concerned with creating a typical horror movie. There aren’t tons of jump scares or slashers waiting to leap out of the bushes. This is instead a more cerebral experience heavy on existential dread and unspoken promises. Strong and subtle performances by Gro Swantje Kohlhof(Mona) in particular, who brings a bravery and inscrutable quality to Mona. You never know who or what is in control even in the end. She is the Cheshire Cat sardonically looking on even when she appears to be in grave danger.
Sleep uses imagery, thinly veiled symbology, and heaps of atmosphere to create fear. Burned out buildings that appear and disappear in the woods and sterile and dripping empty pools are used effectively. Coupled with wild boars that stalk our characters at every turn Sleep is unsettling. Venus relies on the oddly stilted performance of Agata Buzek(Trude) to keep you on the edge of your seat even when you want to look away. A psychic sex scene shared by three generations of women flirts with the edge of acceptability and comfortability. This film intends to push boundaries and it does.
Sleep paralysis is a real thing and it is really terrifying for those that suffer from it. The concept of the factual condition is used to bring the supernatural to life. Those who suffer from it know it can make you feel powerless just like the women in the film do. For Mona, it becomes her best weapon wielded with sympathy, fear, and anger in equal measures.
The ending is deliberately vague. What really happened to Mona and Marlene? As for the others, it’s best left unsaid to avoid spoilers. If you really insist on spoiling things read our explained post after the premiere here. Ultimately you pay for your transgressions one way or another. Either those who you have wronged return to haunt you from beyond the grave or your guilt gets you.
Sleep shows that toxic men never quite go away but they can be controlled with enough patience and time. Women have the ability to bring and save lives and that is more powerful than the ability to take it. We may pay for the sins of our fathers, but we can also exact an exacting price. Regardless of Otto’s greed and motivations, nothing can stop the past from catching up to him. No amount of MAGA can do that. It’s only a matter of time. The plot is a metaphor for the viewing experience itself. Be patient and doggedly stick around even when you cringe because the payoff is worth it. As part of the Fantasia International Film Festival’s online viewing Sleep will be available to the public. Click here for more details. Follow all our Fantasia International Film Fest Information here.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.