They feast on your fear – and it’s dinner time.
Stephen King has been the big dog of American horror literature for over 40 years now, and while his novels have crowded the groaning shelves of book stores and libraries around the world, we’ve also been treated to a cavalcade of film and TV adaptations of the same, and of wildly varying quality. While the likes of The Shining (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), and Misery (1990) are all-timers, there have also been plenty of misfires — 1993’s miniseries The Tommyknockers, 95’s The Langoliers, Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher (2003), and so on.
For all its charms, 1992’s Sleepwalkers probably falls into the latter category for most viewers. What sets it apart is the fact that it’s not an adaptation, but rather springs from an original screenplay penned by King. So, to its detractors, this isn’t a case of a poor grasp of the adapted material, but rather a dud whose blame can pretty squarely sit on King’s shoulders.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth at least a drive-by. Sleepwalkers is vast — it contains multitudes. Under the direction of Mick Garris (for the record, arguably the nicest guy in horror and a key figure in the community for decades), the film struggles doggedly to pull something workable together out of what is a pretty cool premise: the titular Sleepwalkers are shapeshifting vampiric werecats, and the film focuses on the last two of their kind, mother and son team Mary (Alice Krige) and Charles Brady (Brian Krause), as they move into a small Indiana town and begin to stalk virginal teen Tanya Robertson (Mädchen Amick).
There’s a whole mythology about the Sleepwalkers in play and the sense of a greater body of lore that’s only alluded to. They’re kind of matriarchal, with male Sleepwalkers actively hunting their victims to drain their energy, then returning to their ‘nest’ to feed the dominant females (which certainly has incestuous overtones in the context of the story presented). Also, cats can ‘see’ them and hate them, an enmity handwaved by some malarkey about their shared feline DNA.
Initially, the film takes a stab at making Mary and Charles sympathetic monsters, highlighting how they’re always on the run from vengeful humans, which is an interesting, if not too original, take on things. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately, if you prefer your horror nice and schlocky), the film cants into camp gore gags and one-liners whenever violence erupts, and the result is an atonal mess: one minute we’re in Clive Barker/ Near Dark sympathetic villain territory, then we’re watching Krause crack wise as he butchers a gay English teacher (the late, great character actor Glenn Shadix) who tries to blackmail him into sex, or advising a shrieking Tanya that she should think herself as lunch. And then at other times, we’re in this weird, erotic, supernatural fever dream, watching mother and son cat monsters slow dance to ‘Sleep Walk’ by Santo & Johnny.
It’s a mess.
Still, it’s rarely unentertaining, as long as you’re willing to just kind of shrug and lean into the film’s whiplash mood turns and often goofy choices. The film opens with a haunting sequence in which a team of cops led by a cameoing Mark Hamill investigate Mary and Charles’ last ‘nest,’ a house festooned with the corpses of cats. Later in the proceedings, a hapless plod gets stabbed to death with a corn cob — a movie that can encompass such disparate scenes must be worth your time, right? At another point, Charles uses his shapeshifting ability to disguise not just himself, but his entire car — I can’t even imagine how that’s supposed to work in the context of the supernatural world presented, but sure — why not? We’re out where the buses don’t run here.
But we have a pretty decent cast to keep us company, with Ron Perlman, Hellboy (2004), in full-on alpha male asshole mode as a gruff state cop, and Dan Martin, Heat (1995), as a deputy sheriff (there are a lot of cops in this thing) whose pet cat, Clovis, is instrumental to the narrative. And let us not worry about how lucky it is that monsters whose true forms are detectable by cats have to contend with a cop who lets his moggy ride shotgun.
We also get a great cameo from King, who brings horror buddies such as the aforementioned Clive Barker, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper, The Howling (1981) director Joe Dante, and An American Werewolf in London (1981) director John Landis along for one cameo-packed scene.
That scene might just be the key to Sleepwalkers, though. Horror isn’t always scary. Often, it’s just fun, and some of the best films in the genre act as a kind of in-joke or secret handshake among fans, and Sleepwalkers is in that category. We’re not supposed to take this thing too seriously, and the problem with the film doesn’t lie in the fact that it’s frequently silly, but in that, for a few early scenes, it isn’t. That sets up viewers with a certain set of expectations regarding tone and emotional pitch that are rather savagely subverted once the plot kicks into high gear, and the bodies start dropping. It’s not entirely successful, but the intent is pretty clear.
At the end of the day, Sleepwalkers is an oddity, but it is a good reminder that the Grand Old Man of American Horror is capable of cranking out some pretty strange stuff. This is indelibly a King film much more than it’s a Garris film (although the two have collaborated so often that the lines are blurry), and it feels like here he’s indulging some of his cruder, more prurient impulses — and why not? Sometimes it’s okay just to crank up the gore and the gags and the not-very-convincing rubber suits (in their monster forms, Charles and Mary are … something). This is a movie where a housecat cannonballs through a plate glass window to attack the featured monster with a velocity not unlike a baseball being fired out of a pitching machine. If you can’t get some joy out of that, you might be taking this stuff a bit too seriously.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson