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Looking Back: Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (1992)

Early on “Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers,” Tanya Robertson, the lovely protagonist played by Madchen Amick, is seen working at a movie theater in her small town. The fake titles of the movies being shown are “They Bite” (which would have been a better title for this movie) and “Scream Dreams.” This is a telling detail. Those movies would likely play well if shown in tandem to this one, as it’s the kind of film this is: a B-chiller aimed at high schoolers.

Tanya is smitten with the new boy in town, the generously handsome Charles Brady (played by Brian Krause, “Return to the Blue Lagoon” survivor). When Charles shows up to Tanya’s house, picking her up for a date, we’re a few steps  ahead of her: early scenes tip us off that Charles and Mary, his shut-in mother (played by Alice Krige), are on the run from the law. The Brady pair have a strangely caustic relationship with cats, exude an incestuous attraction to one another and even shape shift when the moment suits them. Tanya’s introduction to Mary comes with a chilling detail: as Mary places a flower in Tanya’s hair, we know it’s a ritualistic gesture, as Tanya’s young love will find betrayal in the hands of a true monster.

King wrote the screenplay, which was directed by frequent collaborator Mick Garris, making his first ever attempt to adapt the Master of Horror. “Sleepwalkers” works for a while, even as Garris settles for an indecisive tone. Real moments of horror are constantly undermined by the jokey dialog. Garris and King’s overall goal here is to entertain, obviously, but the biggest laughs here are unintentional (I think) and the actual jokes are groan-worthy. Despite an attractive cast, the use of showy, once-state-of-the-art morphing  effects and some nice crane shots, Garris can’t hide how bonkers, schlocky and proudly trashy King’s screenplay is.

There’s an uncomfortable subtext here involving date rape that King strangely doesn’t know what t do with. King has sensitively and intelligently crafted strong female lead characters before (in everything from “Firestarter” to “Dolores Claiborne”) but Tanya’s physical attack and emotional abuse by Charles is oddly overlooked in the third act.

The powers of the Sleepwalkers include making a car invisible and causing cop cars explode by shooting at them. Tellingly, this isn’t based on a King novel but on an original screenplay, which feels like an unsteady first draft that takes a fatal series of wrong turns in the last half.

Accordingly with the failed wrap-up, the three leads are excellent for the first two acts, then go overboard during the big finish. Krause, in particular, is chilling as the handsome lothario, until the character becomes a Freddy-like quipster. As strong as he, Amick and Krige are for most of the film, “Sleepwalkers” is easily stolen by “Clovis The Attack Cat.”

There’s a great use of Enya’s “Boadicea,” as well as Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” (naturally) on the soundtrack. Garris pulls off a whopper of a one-take shot, where the camera wanders around a crime scene, stopping for one big cameo appearance after another.

Genre fans should eat this up, though the parts that work and charm with knowing drive-in movie adoration can’t save the scenes that tank. King’s screenplay has an over-reliance on pulp, particularly during the sex scenes between Krause and Krige. The incest angle is in our faces so much, it’s as if King didn’t trust that the audience would find it shocking enough.

“Sleepwalkers” is too silly and spotty to qualify as a great horror movie, though it comes close at times to being better than the guilty pleasure it is. There are unmistakable nods to “Dracula,’ “Cat People” and “Lifeforce,” as well as a depiction of the intoxicating feeling of young love and high school dreams of meeting someone perfect… until the dream boat turns into a beast that can only be killed by the scratch of a cat. You know, typical teenage romance stuff.

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