The Sleep Experiment is a frustrating watch. Some moments work very well, yet the faults are sadly too front and centre to ignore. A film that hinders itself when it has everything going for it.
Two detectives begin investigating the ethics involved in the top-secret research facility, Porton Down. One particular experiment stands out to them as the most horrific, The Sleep Experiment, a scientific experiment that took place during the Cold War. The experiment consisted of five prisoners, deemed Enemies of the State, being locked in a sealed gas chamber. An airborne stimulant was continually administered to keep the subjects awake for 30 consecutive days.
The Russian Sleep Experiment is a story that the majority of horror-seeking internet browsers are aware of and is one that is rife for adaptation. Sadly, John Farrelly’s effort only hits some of the right notes in its execution due to some rather stilted and cumbersome acting and writing. There is a good story hidden deep within The Sleep Experiment, hell, there are even two, but in this structure, it simply doesn’t work as well as it needs to.
What strikes you almost immediately is how similar the story echoes films like Hole in its structure. We jump from the detectives trying to crack open the case at Porton Down while we flit back to when the experiment has gone on. Farrelly does a good job of investing us in the experiment group when they are on screen, though he does stretch it when their mental walls finally fall to pieces. The fact that they do so well as a group has you actively wanting more time with them, to see them crumble slower, to see their journeys into madness fully take shape. Unluckily for us, this is different from the way the film goes.
By venturing down the fictional, dramatic side of his story, Farrelly trapped himself in relying on all of the performances to excel when some of his cast could not achieve that. Moreover, by filming The Sleep Experiment in a back-and-forth manner, he needed the interview portions to bring a horrible sense of foreboding, to rack up the tension. So, when we return to the experiment, and the gut punches eventually come, then it wrecks us.
This falls flat on its face with the performances of some of the cast, which we need to be excellent in these moments, give us horribly wooden performances. They are not helped by the dialogue that has the audience feeling like they have just returned from lunch and are in a lovely warm room for a boring meeting about policies. We get bored quickly, and the fact that the film’s ending is meant to be this dramatic swell leaves us bored to tears.
Which is such a shame as the general idea is a great one. The biggest misstep in the film is that it was an attempt at going for the dramatic, powerful moments, something far greater than what it needed to be. By reeling the story’s scope in and focusing just on the men in the bunker with police interviews speckled throughout to move the story along, we would have a much more powerful piece.
The ending of The Sleep Experiment doesn’t precisely work either due to how contrived it is, resulting in the film being nothing more than fine. There is great potential in Farrelly as a filmmaker; this is just a film that tried to swallow more than it could chew.
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