Nightmares can be a tricky thing to relay interestingly in conversation, let alone on film. So much of what makes nightmares scary doesn’t translate well when you’re recalling it to a friend or loved one. Slumber, the feature debut of director Jonathan Hopkins, tries to capture the eerie vulnerability of nightmares. Though it concocts a few vivid scares, the film gets bogged down in horror clichés and ends up feeling like a dream you’ve had hundreds of times before.
Maggie Q plays Alice Arnold, a sleep doctor specializing in sleep paralysis, a condition that causes patients to seemingly awaken, unable to move, while experiencing vivid hallucinations (this phenomenon was documented in the terrifying, genre-bending 2015 documentary The Nightmare). Alice begins treating the Morgans, a family of four who have begun sleepwalking in unison to more and more violent ends (one graduates from dissecting stuffed animals with garden shears to more sentient prey in an increasingly horrific series of events). But in order to treat the Morgans, Alice must reckon with a tragedy from her past.
Slumber offers a neatly packed, just-add-water entity to act as the film’s antagonist, a primeval fiend—a fairly impotent demon known by the delightful sobriquet “Night Hag”—whose ancient mysteries can be uncovered with a quick Google search. Slumber does manage to capture the surreal, horrific nature of nightmares, but in small, isolated doses. The film’s best sequence is a frenetically shot scene where the camera gets lost in a labyrinthine hallway, disorienting the viewer and leaving them vulnerable and unnerved. But the film can’t maintain the manic terror of that scene and falls back on easier scares. With a dark and moody tone—shots muddied with shadows and lumbering music cues that scream “insert scare here”—Slumber fails to distinguish itself from any other middling horror movie of the last fifteen years. Its reliance on clichés could be somewhat overlooked if the film was more fun. Unfortunately, it’s a dour affair, taking itself far too seriously. When a character repeatedly sleepwalks into the kitchen to make smoothies out of whatever is nearby—like Dr. Moreau at a Jamba Juice—the film treats that with upmost sincerity that results in unintentional comedy.
As Alice studies the Morgan family, she realizes something is amiss with little Daniel Morgan (Lucas Bond), who suffers from sleep paralysis (the way the film communicates sleep paralysis—an overhead shot zooms in on Daniel while a halo of shadows closes in around his face—is evocative and exciting). Daniel, the target of the dreaded Night Hag, is Slumber’s naive, haunted savant, the wise-beyond-their-years child, innocent but for the world, whose only character flaw is an encounter with some preternatural entity. This archetype is an esteemed horror trope that, when used well (Tobe Hoper’s Poltergeist being the preeminent example), delivers scares while fleshing out the character and communicating well-defined stakes. Unfortunately, Daniel is merely a plot device, serving only as a conduit to its central antagonist.
While the Morgan family is fighting off Night Hags and blenders, Alice is left to reckon with the death of her brother. On the page, Alice is a thin character, forcing Maggie Q into awkward, exposition heavy scenes (a role she should be familiar with, as her character in the silly CBS drama Designated Survivor is tasked with delivering much of the central mystery’s exposition). Burdened with far too many periphery characters (including an old sage played by Sylvester McCoy, the seventh doctor on the BBC’s venerable Doctor Who), Slumber circles around interesting themes of Alice’s guilt and redemption, but can’t quite maintain focus on these more compelling elements (which are ultimately undercut by a needless twist ending). For horror hounds, Slumber may scratch a familiar itch but it ultimately fails to distinguish itself and, like most dreams, quickly fades from memory.