In lieu of their prison sentences, five men agree to be participants in top-secret experiment in which they will be prevented from sleeping for thirty days. Two detectives are tasked with interviewing the researchers involved in the subsequent events in which the experiment went catastrophically wrong, leading to death and destruction. Weaving these related plots together, The Sleep Experiment is a captivating and frequently horrifying narrative of revelation from first-time Irish director John Farrelly.
Adapted from Russia in the 1940s to Ireland in Cold War era 1961, the film’s script is based on the popular Creepypasta myth the Russian Sleep Experiment, with the basic premise expanded to explore the inner psyches of many of the key players, as well as added arcs, twists and turns. And while evident from its source material that The Sleep Experiment is unabashedly a horror, there are also clear dramatic influences. Its focus on monologue, which characterises the both the detectives’ interviews and the prisoners’ revelations on their pasts, gives the film a the pervading theme of confession, lending the production a particularly Irish flair.
Writer, director and editor Farrelly worked on The Sleep Experiment during his final year of secondary school in 2018, not long after winning Young Filmmaker of the Year at the Limerick Fresh Film Festival. Adding to his undeniably impressive set-up is a strong cast of Irish actors, each tasked with the difficult job of playing layered characters presenting heavily edited versions of themselves in a heavy atmosphere of paranoia – much of which is not just in their heads.
Set primarily in tight, claustrophobic locations, The Sleep Experiment’s cinematography impressively adds to the film’s overall sense of dread. The production makes impressive use of the prisoners’ Spartan bunker setting, with the camera work keeping the action alive and compelling. The lighting is employed strongly throughout to create jarringly intimate scenes at one moment and horror-filled instances of the uncanny in the next. There are also some disturbing moments of gore and violence, but much of the film’s horror is also delivered via the actors’ speech and the implication of what we don’t see.
Seeing what can be achieved here by a young director and a dedicated cast and crew, The Sleep Experiment has already a considerable success for Irish cinema: following a packed premiere on the 27th of October it has been released on several streaming platforms including Amazon Prime and Apple TV. With strong performances, a haunting aesthetic and a compelling and ever-evolving plot, The Sleep Experiment is very much worth watching.