Have you ever watched a movie as a kid, thought it was the scariest thing you had ever seen at that point in your life, and then gone back after years (or, in some cases, decades) only to realize that movie was kind of tame, not all that scary, and even bad? I certainly have, (hello, Pumpkinhead), but there are also movies that somehow retain the power to creep you the hell out even though they really shouldn’t.
Mick Garris’ Sleepwalkers is one of those movies. Chances are, you haven’t heard of it; released in 1992, it was no hit back then, and it doesn’t really have a cult following today. It’s pretty much forgotten now, even though it was written by Stephen King (it’s the first time he wrote something directly for the screen), starred a Twin Peaks alum (Mädchen Amick, who deserved more of a film career than she eventually got), and featured random cameos from a murder’s row of famous horror directors (Tobe Hopper, John Landis, Joe Dante, and Clive Barker all pop up). It’s not a masterpiece, but Sleepwalkers, in its simple depiction of small-town dread and supernatural terror, is a rarity: it’s a horror movie that is genuinely disturbing. Here are a few reasons why you should watch it.
Unlike It, The Stand, or even Misery, Sleepwalkers is probably the most basic story Stephen King ever wrote. Here’s the plot: the Bradys, a mother and teenage son (Alice Krige and Brian Krause), arrive in a small town, the teenage son strikes up a romance with the town’s beauty Tanya (Amick), the son tries to suck the lifeforce out of the girl, girl fights back, the son is wounded, and the mother vows revenge. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that, save for the fact that the mother and son are quickly revealed to be energy vampires that can, according to Wikipedia, “transform into human-sized bipedal werecats.” Hey, it happens to the best of us.
The point is, there’s not much to Sleepwalkers; what you see is often what you get, and in this case, that’s a good thing. It’s an unfussy old-fashioned horror story that isn’t weighed down by metaphor or, as is fashionable nowadays, trauma. It’s a pure fright-fest, which is why it remains so watchable after all these years.
Probably the most famous thing about Sleepwalkers is Enya. Wait, the Irish New Age singer is in this movie? Well, sorta; while Nicholas Pike is credited as the musical composer, the movie often uses Boadicea, a song from Enya’s self-titled 1987 album, to great effect. Why would an early ’90s horror movie use a deep cut from a five-year-old Enya album? I have no idea, but I’m glad they did, as the song is key to establishing the haunting, mysterious mood of the movie.
Boadicea keys up the mounting dread we begin to feel as the son, Charles, targets Tanya as his prey at an isolated movie theater where she works. The song is again revived at the movie’s fiery climax, which again sees Tanya alone, but changed, a survivor who’s just seen something otherworldly and terrifying. As Enya begins to hum along to the spare electronic beats of the song, the movie conjures up a final, memorable image of hundreds of cats walking and jumping around a nighttime bonfire. It’s a beautiful song that is indispensable in capturing the moody mystique of Sleepwalkers and it elevates it from being just another schlocky B-movie.
The horror genre isn’t known for having great parts for actresses. Sure, there’s the Final Girl trope, but how often does a horror movie offer two great roles in the same picture? Sleepwalkers is the horror movie that does just that, giving both Amick’s Tanya and Alice Krige’s mean mama two juicy parts to sink their teeth into. Amick takes a typical “pure virgin” female lead and makes it somehow interesting, imbuing Tanya with a subtle desire for fun and adventure that makes her blind to the creepy signals Krause’s Charles gives off right from the get-go. She’s naïve, sure, but wouldn’t you be if someone as good-looking as Charles had their eyes only for you?
As Charles’ mother Mary, Krige is the standout performer in the movie and the one that makes the most lasting impression. (That’s tough when you have Ron Perlman chewing the scenery as a police officer and Clovis the cat stealing every scene he’s in.) Mary is despicable, a woman not only slaughters children without batting an eye, but also (checks notes) throws cats around and snaps their necks, has sex with her own son (!), and kills entire families and most of the town’s police force.
Yet somehow, Krige makes her sympathetic. She makes you care about Mary’s love for Charles and she almost, almost, makes you root against pure-hearted Tanya at the end. Mary just wants to live in peace and make incestuous love to her son. She can’t help it that they need to kill to survive; after all, isn’t that what everyone else does too? Krige mothered before “mothering” was even a thing, and her Mary is one of most memorable horror movie mothers ever in the genre.
I’m not a cat person, so Sleepwalkers is right up my alley. The only weakness the two villains share is that they are deathly allergic to cats. Yes, that sounds lame, but in the movie, it’s actually cool, as this weakness somehow draws cats to them as well. They are the only ones who can see them for what they truly are: evil monsters who prey on young girls to sustain their lives.
The Bradys are constantly besieged by cats wherever they go, and if enough of them scratch and maul them, they can die. I’ve always believed cats are up to no good, and even though I’m not an immortal creature who sucks the life force out of young girls, I too feel like those pesky felines are out to get me. I won’t give too much away, but these cats help out Tanya when she needs it the most, making Sleepwalkers‘ conclusion one you won’t forget anytime soon.
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