Written and Directed by: Peter Sullivan
Starring: Haylie Duff, Tobin Bell, and Shae Smoliks
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Don't fall asleep.
A couple of months ago, Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake finally bowed thanks to Netflix, and while it didn’t completely work for me, I could at least respect the attempt to take a different approach with familiar material. Despite its collision of childhood trauma, monsters, and nightmares, it was less a horror story and more a twisted—but affecting—fable about processing guilt and grief. In short, it was about something in a way The Sandman—which features similar threads—is not. If Before I Wake didn’t tick off the boxes of stuff you’d expect to find in a cut-rate horror movie, then fret not: The Sandman has you covered and then some. No one would reasonably accuse it of trying to subvert expectations, because doing so would entail some level of effort to which it never aspires—this is exactly the sort of thuddingly generic horror movie you expect when the logline promises a disturbed child, reality-blurring nightmares, and a monster wreaking havoc.
The disturbed child here is Madison (Shae Smolik), an eight-year-old caught up in an obviously desperate situation with her father. Details are scarce, but the two are clearly on the run from something, as the father ransacks a convenience store, babbling incoherently about getting his daughter help. Terrified, Madison watches on as a mysterious creature kills her father, leaving her stranded and alone. When her aunt Claire (Haylie Duff) learns about her father’s death, Madison at least has someone to care for her. Doctors, however, are hesitant to release the girl, citing her weird, wild imagination—specifically her belief that she’s haunted by a demon that manifests whenever she’s afraid. When this creature—dubbed “The Sandman”—appears and manipulates the hospital into releasing Madison into Claire’s custody, it sets off a violent, tragic chain of events that leaves a trail of corpses in its wake.
The Sandman is one of those unfortunate cases where a film can’t live up to a pretty killer premise. Sure, this sort of thing has been done before, but not so much so that it can’t still be intriguing. I mean, we’re not dealing with zombies here, an exhausted genre where it almost feels like a herculean task to even make a concept interesting. Monsters ripping shit up has evergreen appeal, perhaps even more so when they’re completely unloosed into the realm of fantasy, capable of blending nightmares with reality. Unfortunately, The Sandman has little interest in doing any sort of legwork at all, opting instead to often pander to the lowest common denominator with cheap jump scares, even cheaper effects, and lame drama (you know the sort—as Madison’s story unfolds, only Claire dares to believe it, making her look crazy and irresponsible to the authorities). Any attempts it does make to deviate from the path just ends up reminding you of the better movies that have already done this thing before.
But even that might be forgivable if The Sandman were at least invested enough in being the best possible mediocre take on this material. Again, I’m more than willing to watch a monster plow through hapless victims—at least so long as a film is willing to actually, you know, indulge that. Whatever appeal The Sandman might even have on this base level is thwarted by a forgettable creature design and lackluster effects that render its carnage dull. The title monster sort of looks like Pumpkinhead, only all the personality and vigor has been stripped from its face: it’s just this awfully unremarkable brown blob that was conjured up by a computer bot programmed to spit out the most generic monster imaginable. Even worse, the violence it commits is watered down, neutered by the decision to either cut away from the money shot or realize it via weak CGI blood splashes. At one point, there is a spine-ripping, but I’m fairly sure the effect was more impressive in the old Mortal Kombat games. When it comes to a movie like The Sandman, you almost have to rely on practical effects, if only to provide a distraction from the bland photography, uninspired performances, and virtually nonexistent plot.
That it can’t even deliver this is more damning than anything else; always beware the monster movie that seems to be hesitant about reveling in its monster or its trash potential, you know? Case in point: there’s a bizarre little subplot where Claire’s seemingly loving boyfriend (Shaun Sipos) goes absolutely nuts over the prospect of keeping this kid. It’s such a wild turn in behavior that it might qualify as the one surprising development in The Sandman. When faced with the prospect of keeping this bizarre kid, he just fucking loses it: one minute he’s screaming at poor Madison, badgering her over her disrespectful treatment of her aunt; the next, he’s insisting to Claire that keeping her will be too troublesome. In fact, he’s so convinced that he dreams up a plot to take the kid out to an abandoned junkyard and kill her by bashing her brains in with a brick. Apparently having that on his conscience wouldn’t be too troublesome, I guess. At any rate, this guy’s such an outrageous asshole that the film is practically inviting the audience to revel in his deserved comeuppance, only to deny it with a weak, mostly off-screen resolution.
Of course, I have the feeling that the filmmakers behind The Sandman might argue that it’s not really about the bloodshed as much as it’s about Madison. I’d buy that line of reasoning if there seems to be any sort of genuine investment in her; instead, she’s treated more as a plot device, or a conduit through which the lame carnage can happen. At some point, her abilities grow beyond the ability to summon up the Sandman, as it turns out she actually has a set of ill-defined powers, including telekinesis. Once again, you sense the potential here to explore the anxieties she may have growing up with such uncontrollable powers (I mean, it’s essentially the same hook as the X-Men, which might explain Stan Lee’s otherwise inexplicable executive producer credit here); but also once again, The Sandman refuses to really engage it, choosing instead to retrace the steps of Firestarter, dreaming up a ton of mayhem in the process that it can’t possible realize with any sort of effectiveness. You want to respect the ambition, but the poor judgment is more disconcerting. Simply put, there aren’t enough resources or interest to pull off the sort of movie to which The Sandman aspires.
In addition to Lee, The Sandman also boasts a couple other familiar faces that might draw your attention. One is Tobin Bell, here stepping outside of the Saw franchise to play a shady authority figure whose presence actually grows throughout the film. Props to The Sandman for this, at least: when Bell first popped up for a brief interrogation scene early on and disappeared for long stretches, I assumed this was one of those bait-and-switch deals, but he actually plays a fairly substantial role towards the end. He’s fine, if not overly concerned with stretching beyond his Jigsaw persona by playing a cryptic villain with nobly twisted intentions. Amanda Wyss also appears, albeit in more of an extended cameo role, appearing as the face on a book jacket until the third act, where she’s revealed to be a doctor with the ability to help Madison. Her casting is kind of an obvious wink to audiences: as Freddy Krueger’s first on-screen victim, she’ll be forever linked with A Nightmare On Elm Street, which is obviously one of the many films from which The Sandman cribs. And just in case you didn’t get the gag, her character goes resorts to the same approach as Nancy at the end of Elm Street, therefore ensuring you’ll be thinking of yet another superior movie.
To its credit, The Sandman doesn’t bother to linger: after dreaming up one of the lamest ways in recent memory to dispatch a villain, it dutifully cuts straight to the credits, withholding its coda for a mid-credits sequence because…well, I don’t know. Maybe anything tangentially associated with Stan Lee has to do this these days because it’s not like the epilogue here functions as any kind of teaser. I like to think The Sandman is just releasing its audience from the responsibility of watching the entire movie, as, by the time you do make it to the end credits, you’ve seen everything that’s pertinent. Apparently, it knows you’re not interested in any real resolution for the characters, so it slips that in just in case you don’t hit the eject button immediately—or, perhaps, if you dozed off about midway through, in which case The Sandman has unwittingly fulfilled the promise of its title and revealed its unimaginative tagline to be an actual dare.
The Sandman is available on DVD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Special features include the film's trailer, plus previews of other Lionsgate releases.
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