Straight up torture porn films seem to be something of the past, but there is still a small demand for them even if we don’t see as many Hostel and Saw esque movies as we did in the mid to late 2000s. The problem with many torture porn movies are that they lack depth to them, which leaves the audience feeling as though they were created for the purpose of exploitation and that is too often the case. However, the term torture porn gets a bit of a bad rep and isn’t always quite as gruesome of exploitative as it seems, sometimes these films serve to provide a message and slightly deeper meaning than looks on surface level. Paveel Khvaleev and Claudia Zie’s Russian horror film, Sleepless Beauty, aims to give the audience some commentary regarding the influence of disturbing content on the viewer through it’s experimental take, however, the film seems to lose itself along the way.
An unsuspecting young teacher Mila, played by Polina Davydova, is kidnapped and awakens to find herself held captive in a grimey room, one that will remind viewers of the horrific bathroom in the first Saw movie. She is none the wiser as to why she has been taken, but soon realises she is part of some form of experiment as instructions and guidelines are blasted through a loudspeaker. The viewer also sees that her ordeal is being live streamed as we watch various scenes through the computer screen and are privy to the disturbing comments that flood in from anonymous internet watchers. We then watch from behind our screens as Mila is subjected to a rigorous and torturous routine of watching a simulated augmented reality video and then various psychological game tasks such as choosing whether herself or another person are killed.
At the beginning of Mila’s ordeal it is mentioned that she wil be subject to no sleep, and it is here that this perhaps draws some inspiration from the infamous creepy pasta known as the Russian Sleep Experiment. There is another 2020 horror film being released under that exact title, however, this element of sleep deprivation combined with the film being Russain, and the remarks throughout the movie where ‘admins’ monitor her responses and seem to be using her for an experiment that radically changes the behaviour of the victim, all point to elements of the creepy pasta story. The bulk of the movie focuses on Mila being tortured by a man in a black ski mask, and we watch as she is forced to find a baby doll in a bucket of flesh, organs and visceral, put inside a wooden coffin with rats and given a weapon to destroy a human with. In isolation these acts seem horrific and disturbing, but compared against many other extreme or torture films, there is always an element that stops the torture from going too far. It is hard to say it would have been nice to see Mila brutally and violently tortured, however, Sleepless Beauty is not a film made for horror fans who do not like torture, and therefore appeals more to those of us with a taste for the depraved. But without the film really committing to the disturbing acts and venturing into the extreme or torture porn genre it feels as if there is something left to be desired.
With that being said, it is perhaps easier to digest than many other films, and doesn’t make the viewing as uncomfortable. The second most intriguing element of Sleepless Beauty comes through in the commentary that we see happening online during the livestreams of Mila’s torture scenes. It is here that the film aims to go a little deeper than surface level and provide the audience with a commentary around the dangers of being the viewer and how sustained viewing of disturbing content can make us become so desensitised to what we are actually witnessing. Most of the comments that flood through find the ordeal something to laugh at, or encourage the masked torturer to go further than he is, begging to see Mila humiliated and degraded in any means possible. This is by far one of the most disturbing elements of the film as it feels realistic and a little too close to home. More and more recent films are focusing on this portrayal of online commentary and how the protection of a screen seems to allow society to become more dangerous and harmful than ever before.
The first most intriguing part of the film comes down to the augmented reality that Mila is forced to watch every day, and seems to struggle with what she sees. For the majority of the movie the viewer is not privy to what she witnessed through the VR headset, however, once we do get a glimpse into the world she being drowned in for hours on end it becomes all too understandable as to why her mental state has quickly deteriorated, much faster than what we would have expected. Sexualised imagery combined with violence and gore is the first glimpse we are given, but this is far from the worst of what is to come. The term nightmare fuel has never been more perfectly conceived as it is with the Hellish animations that dance across the screen… This is not something easily described and has to be seen to be believed, but if you’re familiar with English animator Cyriak (easily found on YouTube, but don’t watch before bed) then it’s worth imagining one of his horrific videos laced with a bad LSD trip and you’re heading in the right direction of what we see on screen. It is safe to say I exclaimed “WHAT THE FUCK AM I WATCHING!” more than once which speaks volumes for someone that happily views dismemberments at 6am in the morning.
Even though the plot is fairly straightforward, Sleepless Beauty tries to entwine other characters and developments outside of the torture zone, that really seem to take us out of the experience we should be witnessing. That’s not to say they aren’t a welcomed break from seeing Mila scream from fear and pain, but they make the narrative seem messy and confusing without any understanding of how these characters are going to play a part within the film. It is here that it’s easy to become disillusioned with the depraved world that Mila is being held hostage in, and it feels as if these further scenes could have been disregarded and instead left us on a bleak tone.
Sleepless Beauty is a throwback to the torture porn genre that was so popular in the 2000s, and although it tries to offer something unique, it never quite succeeds. There are aspects of Sleepless Beauty that make for an excruciating viewing experience, with torture, mind-numbing graphics and a depressing social commentary. If you’re a seasoned extreme horror fan you might find this film a little tame for your tastes, however those without a penchant affinity towards the sub-genre will find this a horrific endurance test.
Rating: 3 out of 5