DIRECTOR John Shackleton WRITER Alex Chandon; Ross Jameson; John Shackleton STARS Julie Graham; Christopher Adamson; Leila Mimmack DVD 11 May
A rather curious hybrid, John Shackleton’s Brighton-based Sleeping Room is part psychological horror, part ghost story. With a plot involving imperilled call girls, Victorian snuff films, seedy secret societies and dark family secrets, it feels like a throwback to the British psycho-killer shockers of Pete Walker and, to an extent, Hammer Horror. The story unfurls in dingy flats and shadowy backstreets and as such, further echoes the gritty kitchen-sink horror of Pete Walker. The presence of the Gothic is also evident in the discovery of a secret room, whispers of hauntings and the ghosts of murdered prostitutes.
A sense of the stifling conventions of Victorian society is evoked through lead character Blue’s discoveries of the above, and things become slightly more complicated when she realises her own connections to them… As the conflicted heroine, Mimmack is immensely appealing, her character’s bolshie streetwise exterior carefully masking her vulnerability. The almost cosy chats she has with her madame Cynthia (a wonderfully wry Julie Graham) play out as she boils the kettle for tea and watches TV; they’re moments that create a strange sense of domesticity and help to flesh out the characters.
Throughout proceedings, Brighton looks suitably desolate, windswept and bleak, as Shackleton avoids depicting it as the vibrant seaside town it is, presenting us instead with its grim underbelly. It’s peopled by waifs, strays, call girls and shady pimps, while the various shots of the old pier, in all its faded grandeur, and dilapidated seafront residences go some way to invoke memories of similarly spooky and inhospitable coastal towns from the work of M. R. James. Flocks of gulls constantly circle the promenade, like vultures over carrion, and the carriages of the Brighton Wheel resemble glass coffins floating up and into the darkness of the night. The use of arcane Victoriana such as the antique penny-arcade mutoscope, and the creepy old silent snuff film discovered within it, further imbue the film with a strange atmosphere.
At times The Sleeping Room feels rather muddled, particularly in the latter half, but atmospheric tension and taut pacing ensure it remains compelling. The initial intrigue and gradually accumulated atmosphere of unease eventually boils to an intense third act which plays out as a protracted and claustrophobic chase. It’s at this point the relatively subtle, low-key suggestiveness gives way to power tools and bloody carnage, as dark secrets are hauled into the glaring light of day and the plot becomes ever more twisting. And twisted.