Movies that start out with a nightmare often turn into one. A case in point is Perry Reginald Teo’s “The Curse of Sleeping Beauty.” Based on a comic by Everette Hartsoe, the oddball horror film certainly has ambitions, but its threadbare quality thwarts them. Though some of the visuals are striking, belying what looks to have been a very modest budget, overall the picture’s reach definitely exceeds its grasp.
It begins with its protagonist, a struggling artist named Thomas Kaiser (Ethan Peck), suffering gauzy dreams that involve a beautifully-appointed sleeping woman (India Eisley) in a forest whom he tries futilely to awaken. Blocked by forces that prevent him from reaching her, he repeatedly jolts up from the pillow bathed in sweat. The recurrent nightmares send him off to his therapist (though it’s indicated elsewhere that he resists leaving his messy apartment at all.)
A few days later he’s informed by a lawyer that an uncle he’d never known has died (a suicide, of course), leaving him a rundown rural house that, it turns out, has been in the family for generations. Unfortunately, the property carries with it a curse that has traveled, ever since the Middle Ages, through the male line of the family, now reaching Thomas. It involves a comatose beauty named Briar Rose and an entity called The Veiled Demon responsible for keeping her unconscious. She’s ensconced, it appears, in the deepest recesses of the house, guarded by the demon and his minions, and Thomas is fated to preside over the place; he’ll fall deadly ill if he attempts to abandon it.
All of this is revealed through Thomas’ encounter with real estate agent Linda (Natalie Hall), who’s obsessed with the house because her brother disappeared in it years before (only one of many, she insists), and an old manuscript, whose messages they decipher with the aid of a master cryptographer (James Adam Lim) she once just happened to date. (He supposedly translates the text with computer software he’d developed to decode encrypted material for US government agencies.) Eventually Thomas and Linda are joined in their investigation by Richard (Bruce Davison), a grizzled paranormal researcher she also just happens to know.
Ultimately the trio’s sleuthing takes them to the bowels of the house, where, after confronting the Veiled Demon (Ryan Egnatoff) and a bunch of mannequins-come-alive (the demon’s servants, whom he has apparently concocted from living souls), Thomas makes his way finally to Briar Rose’s bedside. But things do not turn out to be as they have seemed. If you want to be forewarned about what happens, you might just check out “Spellbinder,” a 1988 misfire with which this picture has a few elements in common. (Do not confuse with “Spellbound,” a much better film.)
Peck gives his leading-man role greater conviction than it deserves, but most of the remaining cast—especially Eisley, Hall and Lim—are amateurish. The exception is veteran Davison, who is apparently trying to avoid detection by sporting a beard and talking in a creaky, old-man’s voice that suggests he’s attempting to be mistaken for Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. Some credit is due to production designer Alessandro Marvelli, set decorator Teressa Tunney, costume designers Jacqueline Goehner and Erin Layne and visual effects artist Robert A. Haynes for putting together some interesting compositions, and to cinematographer Christopher C. Pearson for effective widescreen lensing (which bathes many scenes in shadow to conceal production deficiencies), but Damian Drago’s editing confuses ponderousness with tension.
The result is that “The Curse of Sleeping Beauty” runs for less than ninety minutes, but you still might have trouble staying awake through it.