Written by: Stephen King
Directed by: Mick Garris
Starring: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, and Alice Krige
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
By 1992, Stephen King’s name had become a staple in both bookstores and video stores, with his works having been adapted at a rapid clip for the preceding fifteen years. Occasionally, he had a direct hand in bringing his work to the screen, either as a screenwriter or director, but Sleepwalkers is a different beast altogether since it marked the very first time the author produced a completely original screenplay. Some internet chatter insists it’s based on an unpublished short story, but, for all intents and purposes, it’s a true rarity since King has only written two original screenplays since in A Perfect Storm and Rose Red. And this one is quite a doozy, too: I’m not sure what it is about having an active, direct involvement in a film that really makes King just fucking go for it, but I’m certainly not one to judge. While Sleepwalkers is never likely to rank among King’s most genuinely unsettling or disturbing tales, it’s among his most raucous, lurid efforts.
Hailing from the same pulp impulses that guided Creepshow, Sleepwalkers is an unapologetic Monster Movie. It opens with a couple of mangled corpses popping up in Bodega Bay, much to the disgust and bafflement of a couple of cops, with an uncredited Mark Hamill’s wide-eyed, lively turn here signaling the playfulness ahead. After shifting scenes to the Midwest, we begin to surmise these cadavers were left behind by Charles Brady (Brian Krause) and his mother, Mary (Alice Krige), a couple of nomadic, vampiric creatures known as “Sleepwalkers.” Forced to sustain themselves on the lifeforce of young virgin women, they roam the country in search of unsuspecting targets like Tanya Robertson (Madchen Amick), Charles’s pretty—and remarkably single—classmate. When he suddenly becomes interested in her, it quickly turns into the courtship from hell, as both Charles and his mother are out to feed on her very soul.
That is quite literally the entire movie. Seriously, it’s almost easy to believe there is an unpublished short story out there, as this film is ruthlessly simplistic, existing only to deliver squirms and cheap thrills. Again, something about the film medium seems to bring out King’s most base instincts—not that there’s anything remotely wrong with that, of course. What Sleepwalkers lacks in narrative complexity and richly developed characters, it more than makes up for with an almost unhinged willingness to both gross out and entertain its audience in equal measure. Bursting at the seams with corpses, incestuous trysts, over-the-top performances, car chases, dopey one-liners, and loads of gore, Sleepwalkers feels like it would be right at home on the monster movie marquee adorning the small town theater’s façade here.
It would also make for a fine Creepshow segment, but instead, it stands alone, for better and for worse. On the one hand, the feature length allows King and director Mick Garris to fully indulge themselves. Not only do they stage a ton of carnage, but they also chase every icky impulse when it comes to Charles and Mary’s unconventional relationship. What’s great is that there’s no playfulness about it, nor does the script beat around the bush: don’t expect any unsettling, furtive glances between this mother and son, as they go straight for open-mouth kissing before heading straight up the bedroom. Within the first few scenes, it’s so obvious that this movie fucks in the weirdest way possible, leaving no doubt that Sleepwalkers is not even going to bother with subtlety. Only a handful of its scenes can be considered quiet or ominous, like Charles’s first encounter with Tanya in a theater lobby, or him reciting his life story in his creative writing class (under the pretense of it being a fictional tale, of course).
But such scenes are short and sparse, as King quickly scripts mayhem in short order. Before you know it, Charles is ripping a suspicious teacher’s arm right off and evading police in his Trans Am. Even his burgeoning relationship with Tanya goes 0-60 in no time flat: one minute, they’re discussing their mutual love of cemetery rubbings, the next minute they’re rubbing against each other in a cemetery. What’s more, he doesn’t even maintain his façade during this romp by promptly outing himself as an inhuman were-cat right then and there. Forget fucking on the first date—he goes right for poor Tanya’s very lifeforce itself, much to her bewilderment and horror. It’s at this point Sleepwalkers abandons whatever pretense it may have had, as its second half is essentially a prolonged climax that finds Charles and Mary terrorizing Tanya, her family, and the local police force.
Obviously, it doesn’t make for the richest story in King’s oeuvre, but I do love that Sleepwalkers feels like him furiously pushing in all of his chips and cashing them in. Even though King had indulged such base material before, I dig on the evident lack of restraint on display here, particularly during what might as well be a second and final act that features Alice Krige impaling cops on picket fences and stabbing them to death with ears of corn (among other delights). That all of it’s in the service of a tale involving an incestuous mother-son vampire duo only adds to the appeal, naturally, and Garris is more than capable of keeping up with King’s breathless insanity. With the exception of some dodgy CGI transformation effects that have aged poorly, the production holds up fairly well, especially its practical gags. He also manages to conjure up some striking imagery during those rare evocative and atmospheric moments, such as a tracking shot of the Brady home set to the strains of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.”
Something about that latter image captures King’s tendency to warp nostalgia within the confines of horror. It’s a very specific effect, one that you know when you see it, and Sleepwalkers pins it down, however fleetingly. While it’s very much a product of the 80s and 90s splatter boom, the soul of an old-fashioned creature-feature lurks within its obvious, retro-tinted backlot sets and its “horror comes to the Heartland” premise. You could easily imagine Sleepwalkers as a 50s B-movie, though I somehow doubt it would feature so much incest and the “cop kabob” gag (among other modern, gruesome updates). The retro effect isn’t quite as overpowering here as it is in other films, like Christine or It, but it’s just noticeable enough to add another layer of perversion to Sleepwalkers, a film that often just feels wrong because it’s trying very much to be so.
There’s an argument to be made that King’s preoccupation with provocation undercuts and diminishes the story, which is fair. In its rush to get to the good stuff, the script basically skips out on a second act that could presumably introduce some kind of genuine conflict beyond two vampires needing to procure virginal lifeforce. It feels like something more interesting should especially happen between Charles and Tanya to deepen the stakes in some manner, but it’s pretty clear this dude is way too devoted to his dear old mom to even think about actually falling for this schoolgirl. If nothing else, Sleepwalkers is a movie that knows what it wants to do, and that’s devise as much butchery as possible in 90 minutes, no matter what that might mean for the characterization and plot.
As such, it does miss out a bit on the colorful array of characters typically associated with King. Charles doesn’t really come to life until Krause is asked to go fully unhinged and spit out ludicrous one-liners, and Amick sadly doesn’t have much to do besides act terrorized. She’s certainly very sweet and naturally charming in a way that makes you wonder how she didn’t break out and become a megastar following Twin Peaks. Everything that works about Tanya originates with her instead of the script. Just about the only fully realized character here is Mary, brought to life here with a devious spark from Krige, who senses the campiness of this endeavor and explores it ever so slightly. One of the film’s best scenes that doesn’t involve impalements or severed limbs finds Mary and Tanya meeting for the first time, and it thrives on the naturally awkward discomfort of a mother meeting her son’s girlfriend for the first time—only, you know, in this case, the mom is boning the son, so it’s even more tense. I kind of love that neither King nor Krige have time for the tortured vampire motif: Mary knows this process sucks, but she’s not one to whine or brood about it. Being a Sleepwalker is fucking awesome so long as everything goes off without a hitch (read: without encountering a ton of cats that can claw your face right off).
With the exception of the main trio, Sleepwalkers is light on memorable supporting characters, even though they do boast Ron Perlman among their ranks. Despite having a pretty prominent billing, however, he doesn’t wander into the film until at least an hour into things, at which point he’s all set to devour the scenery as a cop with an outsized personality (and mouth, which gets him into trouble). If Sleepwalkers had been a novel, you could perhaps see King embracing the sprawl and bringing this town to life with multiple, richly developed personalities, but he doesn’t seem at all concerned with it here. In fact, the most memorable supporting characters come in the form of cameos from notable horror legends John Landis, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Clive Barker, and King himself, who appears as the cemetery caretaker.
These fun little cameos reveal just about all you need to know about Garris and King’s approach with Sleepwalkers. As far as King films go, it’s one of the more purely entertaining efforts: no, you don’t watch it to be profoundly disturbed, nor should you expect it a rumination on eternal evil. It is, however, exactly what satisfies a craving for delirious, over-the-top, gory nonsense. The first of several collaborations between Garris and King, Sleepwalkers is arguably the very best of a derided bunch that I nonetheless have a soft spot for. If nothing else, you always sense that Garris wants to do right by King, even if he never quite had the adequate resources at his disposal following this initial outing. That enthusiasm—which is clearly matched by King’s own—was rarely more evident than it was here, too, and it’s more than enough to help Sleepwalkers outrun its thin script.
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