Written and Directed by: Justin Russell
Starring: Brittany Belland, Ray Goodwin, and Jason Jay Crabtree
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
If I DIE before I wake...
A movie like The Sleeper poses a sort of existential question for the slasher genre: can it really exist beyond the shadow of its glory days? While there have certainly been updates (many of them quite successful, even), it seems like this genre inexorably finds itself pulled into the 80s orbit: witness recent examples like The Final Girls and The Strangers: Prey at Night, a pair of neon-splashed, synth-soaked slashers looking to recapture the spark of that decade’s glory. Like many of its brethren, The Sleeper even goes one step further in its attempt to completely mimic the experience of finding a lost slasher from the era, right down to its vintage logos and MPAA rating card. And while it might be a success in mimicry, it leaves the question: just how far can familiar aesthetics carry something like this? At what point are films like The Sleeper just coasting on an inheritance that they’re content to hoard without any sort of innovation?
These are fair questions, but to also be fair to The Sleeper, it does manage to do this about as well as possible. You rarely find yourself questioning its genuine devotion to recapturing this aesthetic, largely because writer/director Justin Russell is obviously so damn committed to checking off all of the requirements. An opening prologue set in 1979 introduces us to the titular Sleeper, a milky-eyed maniac who terrorizes a local sorority house. We watch him bludgeon a girl to death with a hammer in the middle of the night before segueing to a throwback opening title sequence that boasts vintage fonts and a signature synth score that will drone throughout the rest of the film. A new title card carries us to 1981, where the Sleeper is still up to his familiar tricks: playing prank calls and vowing to murder all of the girls of Alpha Gamma Theta.
Simplicity is usually one of those requirements for this genre, of course, and Russell nails that aspect: The Sleeper is about as straightforward as a slasher movie could possibly be, as it’s mostly unburdened by any subplots that aren’t expressly dedicated to furthering the butchery. Sure, some requisite asides—like a boyfriend’s search for his missing girlfriend once she becomes a victim—develop, but Russell takes a mostly efficient approach to piling up as many bodies as possible in 90 minutes. There’s a purity in this approach, of course, one that recognizes the slasher genre for what it is: an excuse to stage on-screen violence without fretting about much else, at least in terms of plot. A less decorous way of putting it is that The Sleeper has little time for bullshit: it knows what it needs to accomplish, and it does so with little fuss.
What really sets it apart, however, is Russell’s conviction: unlike a lot of post-modern slashers (or even contemporary efforts that caught onto the gag quickly), The Sleeper doesn’t take a glib, heightened approach. This isn’t a borderline parody, nor is it a satire: rather, it’s a real deal love letter to the bygone era of genuinely atmospheric and unsettling body count pictures. Russell takes great pains to recreate the look of a low-budget, 16mm slasher that actually aims to be unnerving—it’s much more in the vein of Black Christmas rather than a more wry, over-the-top splatter movie. Hatchet has long been the poster child for these types of throwbacks, and Russell takes the opposite approach from Adam Green in this regard. The Sleeper is a low-key homage that’s more content to nudge genre enthusiasts with its various nods rather than beat them over the head with them. Just about the most obvious is a cameo from drive-in legend Joe Bob Briggs, sporting his bolo tie and everything as a doctor late in the movie; otherwise, the scattered tributes to the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th a bit more subtle.
However, Black Christmas truly is the guiding force here more than any other influence, a sort of refreshing turn of events as far as these tributes go. We have plenty of similarly minded throwbacks inspired by the era’s gore-soaked romps, so it’s nice to The Sleeper provide a reminder that this genre can be atmospheric and even a little suspenseful if enough effort is put into it. Russell goes directly to the source here, effectively recreating Bob Clark’s icy, wintry vibe with a perpetually bleak, somber lighting scheme to envelop this sorority house and its surrounding quad in a thick air of menace. Slashers don’t usually qualify as spooky, but The Sleeper at least aspires to do so with its low key, gritty photography, accompanied at nearly all times by that droning synthesizer, which escalates into a buzzing menace as the film unfolds.
Russell doesn’t skip on the gore, though: in fact, The Sleeper has a real nasty streak to it when it comes to dispatching its cast. An early outburst is almost staggering in its brutality: Russell nearly lulls you into complacency with some characters’ small talk and an obligatory sex scene before capturing his madman planting a hammer in a girl’s face in unflinching fashion. The rest of the film is similarly stark in its violent—even the more over-the-top stuff (like a decapitation) proves to feel gruesome instead of rousing, further solidifying Russell’s commitment to crafting the genuine article here. Imagine if someone had produced a sequel to Black Christmas in the early 80s that was more committed to racking up a body count, yet more or less retained the suffocating bleakness (see also: Halloween II)—that’s The Sleeper, more or less.
Inherent in this imaginary scenario is the likelihood that such a sequel would have been lesser than the original, and The Sleeper bears that out. At my most generous, I would call the characters here functional—sure, they’re not overly obnoxious caricatures that we find in many of these tributes, but they’re dispensable all the same. None of them have much in the way of a distinguished personality, with the eventual Final Girl emerging basically by default (she’s the one that’s hesitantly pledging to the sorority, to give you an indication of the depth of characterization here). I do like that everyone is mostly down to earth, though: even the main detective (E. Ray Goodwin)—who is usually a skeptical, cantankerous presence in this movies—is an immediately decent person who wants to solve the mystery of these missing girls. Maybe you don’t find yourself completely invested in them, but it’s preferable to actively counting down the minutes until the die horribly. It’s a decent enough trade-off.
Pacing is also a bit of an issue at times. While you don’t mind a couple of wacko diversions that would feel right at home in a vintage slasher (like a game of basketball and the worst line dancing this side of The Howling VII), some of the stalking sequences could use a trim or two (or three). Even at an even 90 minutes, The Sleeper feels a tad too long, simply because the stalk-and-slash routine becomes a bit too repetitive by the end. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that this is a feature rather than a bug in this simulacrum: how many vintage slashers could we criticize on the same grounds? A fair number, to be sure, and that’s why something like The Sleeper becomes more of a curiosity than anything; it’s a fine replication, yet another slasher movie to toss onto an enormous pile, albeit one that just happened to be produced decades after the genre’s heyday.
The more I see these types of blank parody throwbacks, the more I find myself wondering if the layer of nostalgia is the most potent factor. Strip away the admittedly very authentic vintage digs, and The Sleeper would be fine, if not largely unremarkable; with it, however, it rises to a higher profile than many modern slashers and leaves me wondering why Russell hasn’t directed another film since. He’s more than earned the shot with this elaborate bit of karaoke, even if I hope he steps beyond the shadow of the jukebox and does his own thing next time.
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