The Sleeping Room Review
In the Victorian era, when prostitution was a thriving industry, many brothels had what were known as “sleeping rooms”, enclosed chambers where the girls could rest away from the customers. This piece of historical information provides the basis for John Shackleton’s The Sleeping Room, a ghost story which makes inventive use of other pieces of Victorian ephemera, notably a mutoscope – better known as a “What the Butler Saw” machine.
Leila Mimmack, an excellent young actress familiar from television, plays Blue, a prostitute who takes a call from a young man Bill (Beattie) who is working on renovating a Victorian brothel. During her visit, he shows her a mutoscope containing a bizarre film which features the original owner of the brothel, Fiskin (Adamson), cavorting with two young women while wearing a cloth mask. After an unsuccessful attempt at sex, the two young people explore the room and discover a two-way mirror which leads the way to a sleeping room. Blue is terrified by a hallucination of Fiskin but Bill is fascinated – rather too fascinated for his own good. So begins a story of snuff movies, incest, revenge, and dark family secrets where danger comes not only from the past, but also from Blue’s violent pimp Freddie (Sibley).
As so often in this kind of thing, the set-up in the first half is intriguing and imaginative. It’s closely enough related to reality to draw us in and the history of Fiskin, an early adopter of hidden camera filming, is very nicely delineated. It helps that the location filming in Brighton is used so well – as I’ve recently written about Mona Lisa, Brighton itself brings an invaluable weight of cinema history stretching back seventy years so it’s all too easy to believe in it being a repository of grim secrets.
Unfortunately, and not untypically, once the basic exposition is out of the way, the film begins to fall apart. We get various shock moments, some more effective than others, and revelations which start to seem increasingly unlikely. At this point, the music score, which starts out nicely, begins to be irritatingly dogmatic as if telling us how to feel. Joseph Beattie’s performance also becomes a problem – Bill is meant to be obsessed by the films he finds in the room but he seems more petulant than disturbed. It’s only fair to point out that the script doesn’t give him much help. The character of Bill is defined very vaguely and his obsession – or indeed possession - comes out of nowhere.
Having said this, there’s still a lot about The Sleeping Room which is impressive. The way the mutoscope films are shot, by Jake West, is really rather disturbing, a certain pantomime quality to the acting adding to the bizarre visuals. Christopher Adamson’s maniacal brothel keeper is a memorably deranged creation. David Sibley is equally impressive as the loathsome Freddie, not least because it’s so far from the roles I associate with him such doctors, judges and Pralix in the Doctor Who story The Pirate Planet. He’s genuinely frightening here, just as much as the monstrous Fiskin. There’s also strong support from the reliable Julie Graham as Blue’s mentor. But the film belongs to Leila Mimmack who is a strong, tough heroine and instantly sympathetic. She has recently been filming the Ben Wheatley adaptation of High Rise and is certainly an actress to watch.
You may well feel, at the end of a very tightly paced 75 minutes, that the destination is rather disappointing and it’s certainly not the first time that an impressive horror film has failed at the final hurdle. But the journey itself has much to commend it and there’s a wealth of imagination on display here which one hopes will be channelled into future projects.
Second Sight have released The Sleeping Room on DVD only, which is rather a shame since the superb cinematography would benefit from a bump to HD. However, what we get is really rather good and certainly at the top end of the DVD format. It’s presented in the original 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and features very well defined colours, particularly the various shades of red and brown in the brothel sequences. The sepia mutoscope sequences also look very authentic.
There are two audio tracks; Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The two channel track contains a fair amount of effective separation but the 5.1 track impresses with the way the surrounds are filled in with ambient effects and, in particular, the use of the rear channel for shock effect.
A small number of extras have been assembled for this release. There is a brief interview with director Shackleton which is interesting for the background it gives to the film and the manner in which it was made, and an even briefer feature on the visual effects, particularly the use of green-screen. We also get the original trailer and a collection of behind the scenes shots taken by producer Gareth Davies. Finally, there is a short film “6th Sense”, directed by writer Ross Jameson for the 2013 Shortcuts to Hell competition. This stars Julie Graham as an estate agent in a very odd flat and it’s quite effective.
On the basis of this movie, John Shackleton is a director to watch, emerging from the London indie horror scene which also brought us Jake West and Alex Chandon – both of whom were involved with this project. Second Sight’s DVD is a good presentation and worth a look, although don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling slightly unsatisfied.