Film Review, Damaged: 'Edinburgh-set thriller looks like a pound shop Seven'

Korean horror Sleep delights in mining the anxieties of new parents, while Edinburgh-set Damaged looks like a pound shop Seven, writes Alistair Harkness.

Tapping into anxieties about childbirth and parenthood, stylish South Korean horror film Sleep (4 stars) does an impressive job of lulling us into a false sense of security before going entertainingly nuts with its power-tool laden finale.

Parasite’s Lee Sun-kyun and Train to Busan’s Jung Yu-mi respectively take the leads as Hyun-su and Soo-jin, a young married couple who are about to have their first child when Hyun-su starts exhibiting disturbing nocturnal behaviour. At first it seems like he might just be sleep-talking lines from the script he’s learning for his next acting gig, but before long he’s scratching half his face off and somnambulantly raiding the fridge for raw meat and eggs. Meanwhile, the heavily pregnant Soo-jin learns from an amusingly bloody run-in with her new downstairs neighbour that noises emanating from their apartment have been disturbing her and her son since they moved in — which is odd, though not entirely out of the ordinary: their previous neighbour used to complain all the time about their yapping Pomeranian and the frequency with which Hyun-su and Soo-jin had sex.

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Debut writer/director Jason Yu (who got his start working for Bong Joon-ho) is pretty adept here at melding humour and horror, ending the first chapter with a gloriously bad-taste escalation of Hyun-su’s nighttime activity before shifting gears with the second chapter, which takes place after Soo-jin gives birth and sees her own mental state disintegrating as deep-rooted fears about her baby’s safety start plaguing her own sleep and waking moments. The switch in perspective gives the film an added charge as this hitherto happy and trusting couple’s sudden paranoia about the other is amplified by the everyday stresses of having a newborn. As anyone who’s had one will know, a baby will test even the most solid of relationships and the film has sly fun challenging the mantra Hyun-su and Soo-jin have etched on a panel on their wall — “Together we can overcome anything” — by filtering their increasingly freaky experiences through the frazzled psyche of new parents operating on minimal sleep.

A still from SleepA still from Sleep
A still from Sleep

But the film isn’t some elevated exploration of birth-induced PTSD so much as a pretty nifty genre exercise that gradually introduces more supernatural elements without losing the ambiguous and questioning tone. Rosemary’s Baby is, of course, the urtext of this type of horror film, but Yu seems to understand that no film — well, maybe Ari Aster’s Hereditary — can stand up to such a comparison, so takes a different approach, centring the couple as equally baffled participants in this mystery and using the arrival of Soo-jin’s superstitious mother to simultaneously lighten the tone and seed the film’s pleasingly outré finale. That said, seasoned gore-hounds might not find it scary or bloody enough to disturb their own sleep, but there are still some properly jumpy moments — one involving a dumpster, the other a boiling stock-pot — that mark Yu out as a director to watch.

A stacked cast can’t stop Edinburgh-set serial killer thriller Damaged (1 star) looking like a pound shop Seven. Starring Samuel L Jackson, Vincent Cassel, John Hannah and Kate Dickie, this staggeringly incompetent effort casts Jackson as Dan Lawson, a grizzled Chicago homicide detective who travels to Edinburgh to consult on a spate of ritualistic killings in the Scottish capital that mimic a cold case of his own. Teaming up with local detective Glen Boyd (co-writer Gianni Capaldi), they must determine if they’re dealing with a copycat or Lawson’s own resurfaced killer — a joint investigation complicated both by Lawson’s penchant for drinking himself into oblivion on the job (a supposed by-product of his own girlfriend falling victim to the killer he was chasing) and Boyd trying to navigate his faltering relationship with his wife (Laura Haddock) after losing their young son the previous year.

Neither the writing nor the acting is remotely good enough to make these off-the-peg backstories psychologically plausible, so we’re left to focus on a turgid game of cat-and-mouse as Capaldi’s unconvincing DCI becomes fixated on nailing a security consultant (Hannah) for the crime while Jackson — his character ensconced in a tartan-clad ‘Old Town Hotel’ — focuses his performance on downing Scotch like it’s going out of fashion. Around 30 minutes in, Lawson’s oft-referred to ex-partner — who’s French for no other reason than the production somehow enticed Vincent Cassel to co-star — arrives to add a few red herrings to the mix (he’s also called Bravo, one can only hope in tribute to 1980s Brit cop show Juliet Bravo). Sadly the twists Capaldi and his co-writers cook up — including one straight out of the aforementioned Seven — are so crude and obvious they have zero tension.

Performance wise, the top-billed Jackson and Cassel phone theirs in, and Dickie can’t do much with her mostly expository role as Capaldi’s commanding officer. John Hannah, however, commits to being this film’s prime suspect, providing some texture to an otherwise generically written psychopath role. Alas, BAFTA-winning TV veteran Terry McDonough, who has credits on prestige shows like Better Call Saul and Killing Eve, struggles to make what's clearly a limited budget work to his advantage. As a result, the action scenes — including a contrived drone-shot foot chase through the quaint backstreets of an Edinburgh suburb and a low-octane car chase across the Forth Road Bridge — are pretty cheesy, though not as cheesy as the ludicrously inconclusive ending, which rather hopefully sets up a sequel with the villain cackling against a green-screen shot of the Highlands.

Sleep is in cinemas and available on demand from Curzon Home Cinema from 12 July; Damaged is available on VOD from 12 July.

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