Sleepwalkers are an ancient race that's lived alongside humanity, a reptile/feline hybrid ancestor with an ability to cloak themselves and other objects into other forms or invisibility, and feed on the life forces of the virtuous while running from cats, their only natural predator whose scratches are poisonous to them. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, thanks to a text screen and opening credits over sketches from ancient texts going back to Egyptian times, because somebody doesn't have a clue how mysteries are meant to be built. This is one of three major flaws I have with the film, as the first half is full of interesting bits of suggestion and slow reveal, but someone said "fuck it", tied that to a brick, and tossed it out the window as they decided to put bright, blinking lights over everything before it even gets to happen.
Our main characters are Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige and Brian Krause), a mother-son team of Sleepwalkers who just abandoned the latest of a string of small town homes as they settle in Indiana (despite a reference to Castle Rock being a neighbor). Mary and Charles are striking, attractive, enticing individuals. They also have sex. With each other. Both in human form and in very poorly done full body lizard/cat suits. I'm not sure why. I get them making out, as Charles seems to be the only one who can drink the life force of people, so he has to feed part of what he drinks to his mother, but the sex seems to be there just because it's ooky and King wants to push some buttons.
My jokey attitude and the inserts of the text and opening title sequence aside, I actually really like the first half of the film. If you ignore what they shouldn't have given you, there is a nice, twisted playfulness to the way they gradually reveal what's going on with Mary and Charles, as we see him as a wholesome teen listening to an old record player and reading the yearbook... then carving the first letter of a girl's name into his arm. Then he and his mother dance and glare out the window at cats before revealing they're far closer than they ought to be as he sweeps her up to the bedroom. I have my issues with Mick Garris, but he can be very nice at directing character moments, especially when he clicks with certain actors. He clicks with most of the cast here, and his specific angles and flowing tracking shots bring a nice air of casual unease to the skewed mundanity, which, along with the lazy 50s guitar record Charles always plays, does a much better job of capturing the spirit of Twin Peaks than King managed with Golden Years. Almost makes me wonder how Golden would have turned out had Mick been involved, as I think that story could have mixed well with his style.
Though it also helps that King is far tighter in the writing this time around than he usually is. I read a draft of his screenplay in prep, and it's also much leaner and focused than what I'm used to from his scripts. There's nothing elaborate in the descriptions, no long-winded backstories or extended characterizations that ultimately serve no purpose other than adding color. It's especially noticeable after the bloated drag that was Golden Years, and feels like a breath of fresh air in its wake. Who knows, maybe it was a breath of fresh air for King, too, as he did this right after coming off of that project and probably wanted something to shake that experience out of his system.
That's not to say it's a great screenplay, as there really isn't much story here. Within a week or two of settling in (set decoration could have had some boxes around the house to make it look a little less unpacked), Charles is already locked on a beautiful and "pure" girl, Tanya (Madchen Amick, which also rings some Twin Peaks bells), and starts seducing her into a date in a secluded location. He's also had a run-in with a sheriff's deputy (a fun but not overly hilarious Dan Martin) and the officer's pet cat/office mascot Clovis, who run into him again at the secluded date spot, and from then on, it's pretty much hell breaking loose for the entire second half of the movie as Charles is beaten nearly to death by Tanya and Clovis, and it's up to Mary to hunt her down so the girl's lifeforce can heal her son. Which involves no cat-and-mouse tactics, just Mary showing up at the girl's home, smashing through cops and her parents, and dragging her off by her hair in a stolen police cruiser. There really isn't much to the story, just half introduction and half everything paying off, with no real developments or arcs to any threads, or anything complex going on structure-wise.
And yet, that doesn't bother me all that much, as it's a simple story that, once it tips the hand of what's really going on, doesn't dance around issues any more and just runs with them, going from a son trying to feed his mom to a mom trying to keep her son alive, while everyone else lives long enough to wonder just what in the fuck it is that's suddenly exploded on their lives. Moments are drawn out, but don't feel padded. Characters have distinction, but don't have it spelled out in detail. It all comes in at a lean 91 minutes, and while there isn't a huge amount of depth to the writing, I'll gladly take this over what I usually get from King. Actually, the story reminds me a lot of "Sometimes They Come Back," in that it feels like you could turn it into prose and publish it without going beyond that 30-40 page count, as they just let moments hang instead of trying to staple extra meat to the bones, like that story's adaptation did. And this isn't all Mick, as aside from a page-and-a-half scene of dialogue, there's nothing that was cut from that draft I read. They filmed it as is. Then fucked it up by adding the text and credits sequence, but still, this is King being lean in a way I'm not used to outside his early stories and Bachman books.
However, we do still have two major flaws to discuss. I've praised Garris' direction quite a bit here, but he's also a part of the problem as he's still unable to pull off scares or moments of horror. In scenes like the teacher (Glenn Shaddix!) having his bloody encounter with Charles, or when Charles assaults Tanya in the graveyard, or when Mary is smashing through parents and cops, Mick gets so giddy for each scare that he ends up playing it for camp, complete with monsters going "Boo!", spring-loaded cats, and withered corpses that scream for no reason as they drop into frame. He handles most of the story well because it's not supposed to be weird, it's supposed to be a mixture of mundane and odd, normalcy that's become off-putting. He handles that well, but any time we get to a scare, it's eye-roll time and the shocks fail to deliver. The third act is still impressive just because of the scale of Mary's slaughter, a large portion of which is due to the chilling way Krige saunters through it all, but it's also very clumsy and doesn't work half the time.
And the third flaw is the Sleepwalker makeup. I find it hilarious that Ron Perlman suddenly shows up in the second half, because the cat faces Charles and Mary don when partially transformed are totally swiped from his Beauty and the Beast days. The script describes them as being more reptilian, with translucent skin and soft, white fur, and their transformations have a rippling static effect as, instead of morphing, they're literally shifting perceptive fields of reality around themselves. You see those photos Tanya took of Charles? That's somewhat closer to the effect. Here, we just get some prosthetics we've seen better done elsewhere, and basic, early CGI morphs. The bit where Charles first sees Clovis and goes through a number of transformation is laughable, especially the giant infant head he has for no reason. And those full-body suits of their true form. Oh good lord, no. I'd rather they just stick with the Vincent vamp-face.
It's an uneven film. Ultimately, I might recommend it, which I didn't to expect going in, as my memories from a decade or so back were very vague and not so positive. It has its issues, and the story is not only a bizarrely unexpected reworking of the "General" tale from Cat's Eye, but runs through what it has so briskly that it doesn't leave much impact or impression beyond what's on the surface (probably why the memories were vague), yet I enjoyed watching it. The cast is good (love Amick being introduced through her dance number), what it lacks in depth it makes up for by just running full tilt wherever it's going, and for all the deserved crap I give Mick, his direction actually tips more into the realm of really clicking with the material here than I'm used to. It's not a strong recommend, but enough that I look forward to forgetting most of it again over the next ten years before sitting down for yet another fresh watch. That said, you kind of have to let yourself ignore the info dump up front for it to be effective, which isn't a fair expectation to hold audiences to, and a definite strike against whoever put that on the film.
As a final note, Mick is having a blast playing the cameo game here. Love the completely superfluous moment of Stephen King acting the hell out of that toothpick as the graveyard owner huffing between forensics men played by director Tobe Hooper and author/director Clive Barker. And when those photos are developed, those are directors John Landis and Joe Dante as the technicians. And need I point out an uncredited Mark Hamill rocking that police 'stache as the sheriff in the opening?
Things I liked about this movie:
- Cats are the heroes!
- Andy and Clovis, buddy cops!
- Stephen King's cameo (sadly, I did not recognize most of the others Noel mentions, beyond the obvious one)
- Ron Perlman showing up in the final act and basically stealing every scene he's in.
- This is the last King/Garris co-production I'll ever have to watch. Woohoo!
I tried so hard to defend Garris once, I really did. Not everything's he's done is awful, and if it wasn't for his version of The Stand I wouldn't be doing this project right now because I wouldn't care about King at all. But now I simply groan and wince along with everyone else at his poor excuse for scares. Enough with the jump scares. Enough with the poorly executed way too brightly lit to be realistic gross out sequences. Enough with the hammy acting performances.
Of course, not all of that is Garris's fault. It's also King's fault. I'm not going to say that incest can never be handled appropriately in fiction, as I've seen some instances where you can at least understand the characters even if it repulses you. And on the surface, a long lived race on the border of extinction could end up that way. But the constant love scenes between them are so awkwardly done that while they may start off off-putting they quickly devolve into annoyance with overuse.
I have to disagree with Noel on the pacing, as the film is only 90 minutes long and happens over the course of a few days, yet still manages to feel painfully slow at points for me. I see King making some of the same mistakes here he made with Golden Years, just in a more condensed form. Repeated scenes of the cats in the yard, repeated scenes of their flirtations, repeated scenes of Mary stressing to Charles how important it is that they feed soon. Perhaps if we had spent a little more time on Charles and Tanya getting to know each other, create an actual feeling like maybe he might want to leave his mother behind rather than just her imagined jealousy, this could have worked as something dynamic and interesting. But as it stands it's two miserable people who make a string of bad decisions and then die for it.
The creature design is also absolutely horrible. The mid-transformation of the cat-human hybrid is okay, but the full fledged Sleepwalker form looks ridiculous. And why are they so shiny? If you wanted to go for something close to an anthropomorphic hairless cat, this was not the way to do it at all. The effects are mostly decently executed, I'm just confused by the design choices they made.
A couple other thoughts:
- While I recognized Lyman Ward as Ferris Bueler's dad immediately, Cindy Pickett looks so different I didn't realize she was Ferris' mom. It's an interesting nod to that film, anyway.
- What the hell is up with that one awkward moment where the cop asks the sheriff if the parents have been informed that their daughter avoided being raped?
- I have some kind of strange blinders for Alice Krige, where every time I see her in a movie I have to go look her up because I know her voice but I can't remember where else I've seen her before.
- Death by corn on the cob? No. Just no.
- While this isn't a particularly notable appearance of Glenn Shadix, it's always fun to see him show up regardless.
- Seeing Mark Hamill play a cop in the opening scene gave me The Guyver flashbacks, and that's not a good thing.
So unlike Noel, I feel pretty confident in not recommending this film. I last saw it about 20 years ago, and managed to forget everything but the incest. I don't think I'll need that refresher in another couple decades to confirm I don't like this one.