The Sleepwalkers episode of Best Horror Movie You Never Saw was Written by Eric Walkuski, Narrated by Jason Hewlett, Edited by Paul Bookstaber, Produced by John Fallon and Tyler Nichols, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
One thing you have to say about our network, we do find many ways to dissect the works of Stephen King. The man’s bibliography and filmography is filled with so many notable titles – titles that meant a lot to a couple generations of faithful readers and moviegoers – that we may never run out of topics to discuss. And as long as you keep following us on our journeys to and back from the King-dom, we’ll keep diving into that fantastical, frightening world.
In 1992, King was firmly established as a household name; among the most famous authors in the world and certainly one of the most prolific. By that time, numerous films based on his stories had come out, and some of those films featured screenplays written by the man himself. But when Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (watch it HERE) was announced, it brought with it a new twist: this was King’s first original screenplay, since even the majority of Creepshow and Cat’s Eye’s tales were adapted from short stories he’d published years earlier. Rumor has it Sleepwalkers was inspired by an unpublished story King wrote, but since that never saw the light of day, he saw fit to turn it into his first full-on original screenplay.
The story is classic King, the old “Norman Rockwell Goes to Hell” scenario where monsters lurk in plain sight in the middle of picturesque “Anytown, U.S.A.” There’s a nice girl, Tanya, and a nice boy, Charles. They’re sweet on each other and their romance is a very cute one, and if all went well they’d be high school sweethearts well on their way to a perfect, white picket fence marriage. But all is not well, of course. While Tanya really is as sweet and wholesome as she seems, Charles isn’t quite so nice. That’s because he’s a vampiric shape-shifter who feeds on the life forces of virginal girls; how many he’s killed we can only guess. And he’s got himself one mother of a mother: Mary, who is more than just a mother to young Charles – she’s a lover as well. Together, these two travel from town to town, sucking the souls out of teenaged girls before inevitably being forced to go on the run when they’re in danger of being found out.
While it’s unclear how long Charles and Mary have been in existence, it would seem as though they might be the last of their kind. And if they want to keep on doing what they do, they’re going to have to avoid any and all contact with domestic house cats, because those little buggers can kill them with just a few scratches on the flesh. That helps explain all the bear traps on their front lawn. Oh, and while they’re attractive in their human forms, their natural states are, let’s just say, “swipe left” material. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Yes, it’s a weird story, but you’re in King country after all, and if anyone can make this set-up seem believable enough – or short of that, entertaining enough to suspend disbelief – it’s him. One of King’s specialties has always been placating us with visions of placid, every day small-town life before walloping us with one monstrosity or another, and Sleepwalkers certainly plants us right in the middle of a quaint little town where all kinds of hell is itching to break loose.
Directing Sleepwalkers was Mick Garris, who at the time didn’t have a load of directing credits under his belt. He was coming off another twisted melodrama, Psycho 4, which also featured uncomfortable incest-tinged scenes between a mother and son, meaning that in the early ’90s there was just one guy you wanted if your movie featured this very particular subplot. That aside, Garris completely gets what a King story demands in terms of atmosphere; Sleepwalkers has an almost Spielbergian quality in the early going, where the film bounces between moments of suburban normalcy and supernatural spookiness. It’s fitting that Garris cut his teeth as a member of Spielberg’s writing staff for the nostalgic ’80s anthology series Amazing Stories, because that vibe works just right in establishing King’s morbid vision.
Sleepwalkers does well not to take itself too seriously, as Garris and King both know this material is a bit risqué – not to mention absurd – so the movie has fun with several moments of dark humor throughout, though they rein it in just enough so that things don’t veer too much into “tongue in cheek” territory. Still, as the movie goes on and the stakes become of the life-and-death variety, Sleepwalkers appropriately begins to turn a bit grim; as the body count rises, the chuckles subside, accurately reflecting the mood of its protagonist, Tanya.
A few words about Tanya, and we promise to keep things professional and not at all creepy. As played by Madchen Amick, Tanya is nothing less than the quintessential girl next door, with a megawatt smile and an endearing personality, she’s undoubtedly been an intense crush for a countless amount of people. Madchen wasn’t known for much at the time other than Twin Peaks; this was one of her very first movie roles, and she completely owns the part, making us fall for her almost instantly with her goofy movie theater dance and klutzy flirtations with Charles. Via a winning combination of casting and character, the audience has no choice but to feel protective of Tanya, especially when we know what happens to girls who run afoul of the Bradys.
Much is made of Tanya being a virgin throughout, but she’s no shrinking violet; it becomes very clear that she’s got her eyes on Charles and has every intention of, well, you know… and that only makes her more relatable, as opposed to the movie pretending this young woman doesn’t have normal young woman feelings. King has a special knack for being honest about his characters, and Tanya is a very special creation indeed and will always have a place in our hearts.
Charles is played by Brian Krause, and this too was a very early role for the young actor, having only appeared in Return to the Blue Lagoon a year earlier. As is demanded of the role, Krause is basically Prince Charming when the time comes to make Charles as likable as possible; a handsome fellow with manners, the kind of guy you can safely bring home to your mom. Just not his mom, but I digress. Charles is interesting because throughout the film we’re forced to wonder if he’s really going to go through with the plot to take Tanya’s life; is he actually warming up to her, or is he just that good of an actor? Maybe Charles is looking to settle down after all those years with mommy. Sadly, just when we think Charles might not be so terrible after all, he makes it clear that a tiger cannot change its stripes any more than it can be domesticated, and when Charles fully turns on Tanya it’s an unpleasant scene to be sure. But Krause is quite effective in the role, and the handful of moments where Charles and Tanya engage in their playful flirtations are actually quite sweet, making their messy “break up” all the more disturbing.
And the third major player in this grotesque soap opera is, of course, mom. Alice Krige as Mary Brady, and more perfect casting you could not ask for. Catlike in a palpable way, Krige oozes both sensuality and danger no matter who she’s sharing the screen with. Krige has built a career playing unnerving yet seductive women – c’mon, we know some of you are into the Borg Queen – and in Sleepwalkers you don’t doubt that Mary has the capacity to bend people to her will wherever she goes. She can bend a few other things too, and I don’t mean in a fun way. All things considered, the three main roles have been filled quite excellently.
Garris has been rather good at casting throughout his career, and the three leads aside, he populates Sleepwalkers with a very solid supporting crew – he even put Ferris Bueller’s parents in the picture. You’ve got Otho from Beetlejuice playing a predatory teacher who gets what’s coming to him; Rob Perlman in a brief but enjoyable turn as an overzealous cop, and yes, the King himself as a confounded cemetery caretaker. A special treat found in most of Garris’ movies are cameos from director and writer friends, and Sleepwalkers has quite a handful of them, from King, to Tobe Hooper and Clive Barker (in the cemetery scene), to Joe Dante and John Landis. And let’s not forget Mark Hamill as an officer in the film’s first scene, which incidentally was part of a reshoot to give the movie a more shocking opener.
One more very important cast member demands mentioning: There’s a long list of memorable animals in King’s stories and films, from Cujo to Pet Sematary’s Church, Cat’s Eye’s The General to that little critter Oy in the Dark Tower books. Sleepwalkers certainly has a stand-out four-legged friend in the form of Clovis, a police-cat just as heroic as he is cute. The sequence where Clovis saves Tanya’s life by attaching himself to Charles’ face is one where you get up and clap, because at this point Charles has made it completely clear he’s no conflicted lover boy but indeed a predator who needs to be stopped. Like several other sequences in the film, it’s both freaky and funny, shocking and satisfying, and it puts Clovis toward the top of King’s most kickass furballs.
Not to be outdone, the finale features a veritable boatload of cats; in a couple of the more impressive shots in the movie, dozens of cats scamper along the streets of the town as they move to fulfill their destinies and rid the world of the Bradys once and for all. And though we’re rooting for these ferocious felines, there’s still something absolutely hilarious about watching them attack one of our villains – and dare we say, the movie’s most uproarious moment involves a poor kitty getting blown right off the back of Ms. Brady via shotgun. C’mon, that’s funny.
But that’s about the last funny thing to happen in the movie, as the seriousness of the third act pretty much sucks the comedy out of the movie like a sleepwalker sucking the soul out of a virgin. As it becomes clear poor Tanya’s happy life has been thoroughly pulverized by the experience, the somber humming of none other than Enya plays us out. And who could ever forget that tune, which is still being sampled in songs to this day?
While never mentioned in the same breath as the truly great King movies (Shawshank, Misery, Carrie), Sleepwalkers stands as an appreciably quirky product; the film has a distinct personality, and its swings from small town romance to blood-drenched nightmare are frequently startling to behold, but it all fits together in this very peculiar world created by King and Garris. Of course the two have worked together several times since, on bigger projects like The Stand and The Shining, but they lacked the odd, creepy charm that runs through Sleepwalkers, a “boy-monster-meets-girl” story they just don’t make in Hollywood anymore. But we’re sure glad they made this one.
A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/sleepwalkers-best-horror-movie-you-never-saw/