Low-budget horror continues to flourish in the twenty-first century, launching whole subgenres and giving audiences access to a plethora of terrifying tales that stretch beyond the standard Hollywood fare. While everyone really wants to be the new Paranormal Activity, it’s not the easiest thing to craft a narrative that manages to truly frighten. So when writer/director Andrew Lyman-Clarke’s virus-run-amok film Night Sweats popped up on my radar, the possibility of some proper Cronenbergian scares within a small budget film seemed an interesting prospect.
And it is indeed an intriguing premise. Night Sweats opens with skateboarder Yuri’s (Kyle DeSpiegler) arrival in New York City, where he’s come to join his friend, Jake, who works as videographer for shadowy self-help company True Healing. Yuri falls for MK (Mary Elaine Ramsey), a waitress in Bushwick, whom Jake has been filming as a subject for True Healing’s “trauma” videos, which the company sells to pharmaceutical companies. When Jake dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, Yuri decides to investigate, discovering that a number of True Healing’s subjects have died the same way. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a winding conspiracy that leads to some of the unlikeliest places.
Night Sweats has all the makings of decent, low-budget horror flick about a virus engulfing New York City, a shadowy company trying to profit from it, and a plucky do-gooder working against the clock to discover its source. The film is well paced and generally well shot, clipping along nicely without dwelling too long on its occasional body horror moments. Yes, there are a few plot gaps, and the acting tends to wobble into histrionics, but the sections of the film that build Yuri’s dread and the varying, developing nature of the mysterious illness have real teeth to them. Creepy and effective, Night Sweats even overcomes its budget restrictions (and the occasionally patchy acting of its leads) to deliver some real scares and tension. But for all its strengths—and it has many—it’s entirely let down by the final act, which tosses much of the good will it has built up into a massive buzz saw of misogyny.
I don’t know if the filmmakers thought they were being clever or if they legitimately missed the vicious problematics of their big reveal, but dear God, boys. The denouement would have fit in perfectly with right-wing hysteria at the height of the AIDS epidemic and is so backwards thinking that it reads (perhaps accidentally, if we’re being charitable) as an MRA horror story. There’s really no excuse for this, and one would only hope that Clarke and his cast did not realize what they were doing. There are so many horror possibilities inherent in the notion of a company that sells and profits from recordings of trauma that to shift the focus at the end onto an actual victim, especially given contemporary politics surrounding trauma and victimhood, at best exhibits ignorance and lack of understanding, and at worst comes off like a deliberate attempt to craft an insidiously misogynist horror narrative.
Night Sweats might have worked were it not for this denouement. The filmmakers effectively up the tension throughout, and the occasional wobbles are forgivable for the instances of real excitement. The bogeyman of Big Pharma is a legitimate one, but the late act shift to another (male) fear absolutely undoes all that came before. It’s seldom that contemporary film is actually offensive in its gender politics, but this goes beyond casual, thoughtless sexism and enters the realm of explicit, self-satisfied, and unreflective misogyny. It’s an insidious conclusion to an effective film, one that begins to develop about partway through and that had me whispering, “Oh no,” for much of the last ten minutes. It’s a shame, too, because there’s plenty of good stuff in Night Sweats. If only the narrative wasn’t so hateful.
Night Sweats is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.