The Sleepless Unrest: Noise to Signal and Back Again, by Dayne Linford
Marooned following the cancellation of SyFy’s infamous Ghost Hunters, directors Kendall and Vera Whelpton pursue similar material in Sleepless Unrest, concerning the reputed real-life counterpart to the home from The Conjuring. With the turgid pace of a particularly long reality-in-name-only television episode, however, the film plods through two weeks of too many empty rooms and errant, over-interpreted dust particles, the shivering declaration of their horror hit pedigree doing all the actual work. Invited by the new owners of the three century old Rhode Island home, Cory and Jennifer Heinzen, the Whelptons are joined by friends and paranormal investigators Brian Murray and Richel Stratton, also from Ghost Hunters spin-offs, all wielding cameras and sensors and gadgets aplenty to document literally everything they can.
Kitschy fan service abounds. Vaguely creepy dolls lie tucked away in grandfather clocks, a cryptic note tumbles out of a conveniently hefted book, and the Heinzens have even saved a little crawlspace entrance to open with the documentary crew. Most egregious, and hilariously shabby, is the pentagram “somebody” scribbled in a lonesome pile of sand left inexplicably in the attic. Whatever might be haunting this place only seems to enjoy cheap tricks once – no further pentagrams make an appearance. Heedless, our intrepid crew skulks through the basement’s stone and mortar walls, split by broad metal pipes and vents, treating the diverse utility machines, ranging from modern to quite old, as objects of fear and apprehension. They really outdo themselves when they find the well, surreptitiously if a little suspiciously covered by a small board, tucked innocently enough in the back, a remnant of previous times.
To our plucky documentarians, this is a creepy, haunted well, but more striking is the convenience of a well in your own home before running water. You can feel a palpable friction between defunct wells and modern water heaters, sewage pipes and gilted coal furnace doors, a battalion of paranormal investigators with gadgets various wondering why the old cellar is so cold, the fugitive past and the ignorant present. If you’re slightly curious, the house is littered not with apparitions but historical telltales of half a millenia of European settlement. This genocidal occupation is evoked in a passing reference to King Philip’s War, a devastating conflict between European settlers and a coalition of the Wompanoag and Narragansett First Nations. Not to meaningfully engage with the actual weight of living in this territory as occupier or occupied for centuries, but instead only as a trivial aside for a potential, much desired spectral springboard.
By the big climactic scene, largely composed of beanie-wearing men stumbling around the woods in winter, banging on trees and mentioning to nearby ghosts that it’d “be really great” if the ghosts would bang back, the film has exhausted any capability to take these people or their phenomena seriously. A solid hour of cameras panning past anything of interest to focus on the gratuitously shocked expressions of our investigators has inured us, and even the human face, inimitable inspiration for thousands of years of artistic pursuit, is past its empathetic limits. We can only watch dully as they finally run out reaction shots from wood noises, and are suddenly home. Any hope the ordeal has passed, however, is dashed as filmmakers and investigators credulously report the phenomena have followed them, eagerly flipping lights off and on to demonstrate reported happenings, ominously zooming in on a toy that appears to have gone off all on its own.
Stunts shoddier and more tawdry than these, like the infamous, exposed Amityville hoax, have raked in millions for tricksters and studio bosses alike, and will continue into eternity. There’s nothing wrong with a creepy tale for campfires – cinema’s tradition of horror is one of its crown jewels. The redundantly titled Sleepless Unrest and its like aren’t execrable because they want to make our skin crawl and get us to jump in our seats. What’s repulsive is how thoroughly incurious they are, about either a natural or supernatural world where humans make careers out of running around in the woods scaring themselves, and other humans line up in droves to see it. The shadow of history, the mystery of other people’s lives, the idea that there’s something terrifying or sublime beyond our ken, these are all discarded in favor of beeping electrograms and following floaties around the room. It’s just all so disappointing, and you’re left wondering if they’re just as thoroughly bored with it all as you are.