Graham Denman’s debut feature is the sort of thing that can’t help but feel like an autobiographical fantasy – since it’s about Jack Archer (Chase Williamson), a young director struggling to get a feature gig after racking up student debt while making shorts and doing unpaid intern scutwork around the industry … who suddenly gets an offer from dodgy cowboy producer Bob Moseby (Chris Browining) to direct a greenlit low-budget horror script (Sleep Experiment).
Bob gives Jack apparent carte blanche (‘this could be your Piranha 2’), bringing his longtime pal Sam (Shane Coffey) as DP, but the catches start being apparent … when Jack discovers that leading lady Nancy (Caroline Williams) is Bob’s wife, he thinks he’s getting a handle on what sort of production this is … then Bob steps in after the first day of shooting with a tiny request, that the movie end with the caught-on-camera actual murder of leading man Damien (Victor Turpin). Bob spins this as an attempt to create some sort of sickfilm publicity gimmick, but there are other corpses littered around the set, a weird contract-signing ritual turns out to be a trick to get Jack’s fingerprints on a murder weapon, and the mind-warping premise of Sleep Experiment – which harks back to stuff like Adam Simon’s Brain Dead – has reality and fantasy commingling, and threatening to spill into the real world.
This spiral-into-nightmare movie has some heartfelt if cartoonish early scenes establishing the humiliation of trying to get a toehold in the movies, as Jack waffles through a meeting with an exec who is looking for a more experienced director (changing his Western pitch into a horror movie in mid-flow) and then suffers a meal with the snooty parents of his just-sold-a-novel girlfriend (Evanne Friedmann) who needle him about being a financial deadweight. When the mystery thriller stuff kicks in, Williamson becomes effectively distressed and jittery, going along with the evil plot while squirming for a way out of it – but the film oddly doesn’t take the darker route of the Strangers on a Train novel (rather than movie) and have the protagonist even be tempted (or seem to be tempted) to commit murder in order to get his movie made.
There’s a tumble of twists near the end, though the script could actually do with a few more pullbacks and reversals after it’s initial set-up (there’s only enough plot here for the first reel of Ken and Jim Wheat’s vaguely similar Lies). Sprinkled throughout, of course, are Inside Hollywood references and asides – Sam signs up for the film because he’s tired of waiting for James Franco to get something going, and the spectres of Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino are often raised as the sort of auteurs who’d have gone along with Moseby’s deal.
Williams, leading lady of the second Texas Chainsaw movie, gamely puts up with jibes about being hot in 1985 and a general B movie career, while familiar face bit-player Browning steals every scene he’s in with a study in Bill Paxton-esque down-home cynical menace. Scripted by Eric England and Patrick R. Young, from a story by Denman. The end credits include thanks to directors Mike Mendez – who cameos as a victim – and Bill Malone – who contributes a song.