You Shall Not Sleep is terrifying from the very first frame: a young girl emerges from a creaky wardrobe in a debris-ridden corridor of an abandoned flat. The light is a cold, ghastly blue. A record skips on its phonograph. As she makes her way down the hall, terrified, she finds a decrepit old woman staring at herself in the mirror, vigorously brushing the same strands of hair, over and over and over again. Oh, and there's a litter of dead cats hanging from the ceiling.
Helmed by the Uruguayan director, Gustavo Hernández—renowned for his single-take horror film La Casa Muda (or, The Silent House)—You Shall Not Sleep (also in Spanish) is unrelenting in its scares, drawing upon a mythology that devilishly bundles together a murderers’ row of chilling tropes: vengeful spirits, filicide, living insane people, dead insane people, abandoned psychiatric hospitals, really scary bathtubs, self-asphyxiation, creepy dolls, the works. At one point, the protagonist even takes a look under her bed.
This might seem hackneyed if not for Hernández’s uniquely haunting imagery, as well as a premise with some built-in theatricality: Alma Bohm is a legendary, iconoclastic director/performance artist who assembles a cast of actors to join her in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, where she plans on staging a (ha) Sleep No More-esque play. Audience members will watch through peepholes. And the actors will achieve ultimate lucidity by being deprived of sleep for 108 hours prior, thus entering a “limbo between sleep, craziness and death.” It's a comedy (kidding).
Bohm (Belén Rueda) is somewhat of a sadistic Marina Abromovic, revered for her unorthodox methods by young actresses, like Bianca (Eva de Dominici) and her friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina), both of whom decide, what the hell, let’s take this van out to this creepy mental hospital to be a part of a production for which it’s necessary to deliberately lose our minds. It’ll be artistically satisfying, they said; it’ll be good for our careers, they said.
When Bianca and Cecilia arrive at the hospital, they meet Bohm, her son, Fonzo, and another actress, who’s already been awake for several days. Bianca is meant to play the lead, of Dora: a mother who went insane with postpartum depression and wanted to kill her daughter. To fully inhabit her character, Bianca is directed to internalize the script and not sleep, thereby forcing herself to enter this “limbo” and become a kind of character-absorbing sponge. In practice, this means staying awake to the point where the borders between reality and make-believe become inextricably porous; in laymen’s terms, this means losing your fucking mind.
The sleep deprivation-limbo concept is an inventive horror movie device: if the characters never sleep, there’s really no distinction between morning and night. And the longer they stay awake, the less they can trust what they see, or if the person they’re speaking to is actually a person, or if they’re even there at all. Few and far between are the respites even the scariest movies dole out, during daytime scenes or scenes with other characters. They’re never safe from the spirits that haunt the hospital and, as an audience, neither are we. This makes for an uneasy, exhilarating movie-going experience. You can barely pause to take a breath, or close your eyes.
The more insane Bianca gets, the more capable she is of portraying Dora—who she discovers, through some good old fashioned lunatic writing on the wall, is not a fictional character, but a real person. The limbo allows her to “go through the door” and enter the spirit world, where the dead are doomed to repeat their darkest moments (hence, the bad hair day in the opening scene). Bianca embodies Dora, while Dora can feasibly possess Bianca in the real world—to use her body to do what she cannot. By its climax, You Shall Not Sleep becomes a little convoluted, subsumed by its own twists and turns. But suffice it to say the Bohm’s show is a macabre success, mostly because Bianca never completely allows Dora to possess her: by consciously acting, she clings to herself and remains in control.
Hernández is grasping for something bigger here. In staging a play within the movie where its actors have literally gone insane, it makes the audience members complicit in the consequences. You Shall Not Sleep is partly, maybe mostly, a horrifying satire of acting—of the lengths we’ll go in the name of great “art”; of the willingness of actors to submit to directors, whose craziness we tend to launder into genius; of the way in which disappearing so completely into a character can threaten an actor's identity. The spirits in You Shall Not Sleep possess people in the real world to do what they cannot in the afterlife. It’s fucked up. But it’s catharsis.