Sleepwalkers (Mick Garris, 1992)
“sleep’walk’er n. Nomadic shape-shifting creatures with human and feline origins. Vulnerable to the deadly scratch of the cat, the sleepwalker feeds upon the life-force of virginal human males. Probable source of the vampire legend.”
- CHILLICOATHE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ARCANE KNOWLEDGE
1ST EDITION, 1884
So the decade begins and, with Sleepwalkers, comes the ascent of seemingly ubiquitous filmmaker Mick Garris to Grand Poohbah within the cinematic Stephen King fold, his arrival coinciding, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, with a decided movement towards more standard, less auteur-driven cinematic fare derived from the author’s written work. To be fair to Garris, Sleepwalkers is far from a bad effort, and – if (less and less reliable) memory serves, his “The Stand” miniseries isn’t bad for television at that time (“Buffy” hadn’t yet arrived to show us what horror could be on television) – but that’s just a few amongst a steady stream of fairly pedestrian efforts from the self-described ‘nice guy’ filmmaker (with his rise not only disproving that old adage about ‘nice guys finishing last’, but managing a similar statement about ‘mediocre filmmakers’ getting to the front of the line as well).
King’s hand-picked selections for his work starting at this point (the Garris’, the Hollands, the Craig R. Baxleys) are a little underwhelming when stood against their counterparts of the previous decades… I suspect, either King favored them because he could rely on them as ‘yes’ men who regarded him in appropriate worshipful fashion (no Stanley Kubrick to hang up on him mid-conversation amongst this group, that’s for sure), or (as his own non-fictional critique of the horror genre “Danse Macabre” kinda revealed) the author’s cinematic tastes are, well, a bit suspect (Mad Max as a turkey? Really?)… or perhaps a bit of both.
It’s not like Garris doesn’t have some flair as a filmmaker. He does. I mean, he moves that camera about, he references other movies, he tries some funkier maneuvers, and isn’t afraid to pull out the stops for some juicy gore gags… the real problem is that he, and his collaborators, are ultimately channeling the sunnier disposition of Spielberg, as if what was required was a cinematic approach akin to an 80’s family-friendly “Amazing Stories” episode… when what was really needed was an intimate and darker approach to what is essentially a down-and-dirty (and admirably erotically perverse) King script (the proof in the pudding being every time the film’s score moves away from replicating a typically on-the-nose John Williams’ orchestral composition and instead reprises the more understated Enya mood piece, reminiscent of the evocative pieces John Carpenter created for his films, a lingering atmosphere emerges, bringing things immediately much more alive). In many ways, a simpler directorial approach, such as what director Dan Attias did previously when adapting King with Silver Bullet, would have served the script better.
Not based on any of his previous written work but instead on an original screenplay, while King is conjuring up a new kind of ‘monster’ with his sleepwalkers (referencing the made-up book quoted above at the beginning of the film to lay it all immediately on the line, with no mystery to uncover, as we know who and what they are, as well as they’re intentions, right from the start), he isn’t really stretching too hard. It’s fine, though, letting him playfully (and naughtily) merge together everything from those long-time horror icons, the vampire and the werewolf, with Val Lewton’s 1942 creation of the tragic and dying out cat people (though the author is aligning them much more closely with Paul Schrader’s luridly incestuous 1982 modern version – which allows some of the more effective and – no surprise — more intimate moments in the film, with Momma Sleepwalker – played by that wonderfully strange and sensuality-dripping Alice Krige, in the middle of her fifteen minutes of fame in the horror genre – half-crazed with lust, needing to have constant sexual intercourse with her son – played by the handsome if unexciting actor Brian Krause – to keep herself ‘fed’ until he can find a virgin girl for the two soul-suckers to feed on her life essence, managing scenes that ring with an unapologetic taboo sense to them – which might speak a bit perhaps to one of the reasons why this King jaunt wasn’t so successful at the box office).
Along with the sensually enticing Krige, Mädchen Amick, initially brought to our attention as the Diner R waitress in the abusive relationship with trucker Leo in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”, is engaging, adorable and believable in the central role of the innocent small town school girl Tanya, smitten with the new boy in town, not realizing the Krause character’s aw-shucks flirtatious routine is his way of finding his way towards sucking out the, you guessed it, virgin girl’s life force. Seeing her in this, with how much the camera just loves her, I’m kinda surprised she didn’t go on to bigger mainstream success.
Sleepwalkers is one of those films I watch and keep wanting to celebrate – for admirable things like the no-nonsense approach of King’s script, the occasional turns into Enya moodiness, the presence of Krige and Amick, the juicy gore bits (including some real nastiness against Amick’s poor Mary and even her parents) – but end up more than a bit frustrated. I mean, I can excuse the by now de rigueur self-congratulatory cameos by a slew of other ‘Masters of Horror’ (in this case including Joe Dante, John Landis and, of course, King himself), but it’s the arbitrarily convenient (and clunky) power of the sleepwalkers, for whatever reason, to be able to make their cars not only disappear but change into other makes and models (yes, you heard me right), the sudden distracting veers into goofy broadness (I wondered who was to blame for the mood-killing one-liners that Krause’s sleepwalker starts spewing about an hour in as he goes on a killing rampage? Could it really have been King? Or was it added by Garris? Me, I can only hope it was the work of meddling producers too creatively bereft to know better) and some over-the-top characterizations (such as the local cop always talking siwwy talk with his cat in the patrol car, and the officious school teacher who acts more than a bit sexually repressed) that seem to want to aspire to small-town color but come across as lame comedy relief, the unimpressive CGI face-morphing of the sleepwalkers taken right from the race- and gender-morphing technology used (much more wisely) in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video from the year before, and that aforementioned sunny Spielbergian approach, that all just… well… get in the way of my fully embracing the film.
At least they carry us out of the film properly, on the closing resonant image of a destructive, yet cleansing fire, as the hypnotic tones of the Enya song that’s been referenced throughout now play in its entirety (mind you, I’m not a fan of Enya’s easy-listening music much at all, but this one piece works perfectly). If only they had captured that tone, that feel, consistently throughout.