The unyielding, algorithm-fueled glut of true crime content gains yet another entry in the straight-to-streaming canon with Dead Asleep, the latest from documentarian Skye Borgman. Much like in her 2017 Netflix film Abducted in Plain Sight, the film’s goal is to be as shallowly entertaining and consumable as possible, even if that means trading documentary ethics for a slick, sensationalist slant. However, the film is not particularly egregious in its missteps, closely following a blueprint that has been regurgitated on a recent loop—a component much more damning of the entire true crime media obsession than one single film.
Dead Asleep follows the case of Randy Herman Jr., who was arrested in 2017 after brutally stabbing his childhood friend and roommate, Brooke Preston, to death. Despite being covered in blood and possessing defensive wounds when police arrive on the scene, Herman claims to have no recollection of the incident—an assertion that causes him to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. While Herman’s cognitive functions appear to be completely rational in his on-screen interviews, his defense posits that the DSM-5 would categorize him as having sleep arousal disorder—and this unquellable corner of his psyche is actually what drove him to kill without motivation. Allegedly having suffered from chronic sleepwalking throughout his entire life, Herman believes he was experiencing a period of unconscious action when he murdered the 21-year-old. Given exclusive access to Herman (now 28 and serving a life sentence), his family, legal representation and journalists who locally reported on the West Palm Beach murder case, Borgman’s doc is nonetheless one-sided. Preston’s family declined involvement in the documentary and as such, Brooke is hardly a palpable presence in the narrative. She is presented in Facebook videos playing beer pong, social media selfies and even a bizarre 3-D modeling of her final moments, but her personality and personhood are all but ignored.
Before any promotional material for Hulu’s latest original true crime documentary even began circulating, it was already the topic of heated contention on TikTok. “You think you can hurt me?” reads the caption on user @jpresttt’s video. “Hulu just released a documentary on how my little sister was brutally murdered…so now we get to relive the worst day of our lives.” The woman solemnly dancing on-trend in the video is Jordan Preston, Brooke’s older sister, who also lived in the house where Herman and her sister resided. Immediately, fellow TikTokers began to chime in, planting themselves in two distinct camps: Those who agreed Hulu was exploiting Brooke’s murder for casual consumption, and those who wanted Jordan to drop the title so they could catch the film when it premiered.
Though there has been a concerted push toward criticizing the surplus of true crime content—some recent examples being Hulu’s quick cash-in on an Astroworld documentary and TikTok’s conspiratorial fascination with the Gabby Petito case as it developed—it’s clear that these vehicles remain highly profitable. Whether they’re alluring to those long plugged into Forensic Files or Zoomers looking to garner some easy views, true crime has a vexing pull on the general populace. There remain several convincing explanations for this phenomenon: Women (who consume the majority of true crime media) are merely morbidly curious about a threat that endangers them; America’s deep-seated culture of violence has become so ubiquitous that we have become completely desensitized; engaging with the tragedies of others helps many feel less helpless in their own struggles.
Whatever the rationale, it doesn’t excuse the incessant churning out of half-baked documentaries that serve little purpose outside of boasting exclusive access to the families of perpetrators and victims alike. Dead Asleep offers absolutely no resolution—it’s up to the viewer to discern whether or not they buy Herman’s story—an irresponsible way of framing the case, as it omits the perspective of Brooke’s family entirely (aside from one devastating yet voyeuristic clip that reveals her mother’s reaction to her murder). Without their presence, the film flimsily focuses on Herman’s sleepwalking defense, which is ultimately nothing more than a cheap gimmick Borgman has little intention of unraveling. Information is spouted straight from the case file, a banal approach that hardly interrogates the material circumstances and medical intricacies of sleepwalking. It becomes impossible to parse exactly what the documentary exists to prove, aside from the fact that true crime content always performs well—even among those who are explicitly asked not to engage with an unwanted, uncorroborated story.
Director: Skye Borgman
Release Date: December 16, 2021 (Hulu)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan