Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you Sleepwalkers is a great film. It’s not. It’s plagued by pacing issues, awkward dialogue, and some questionable performances. And despite turning a decent profit during its theatrical run, the film was a critical disaster, panned by both fans and critics.
Sleepwalkers’ legacy of infamy would continue decades after its release, becoming a midnight movie staple for college dorm rooms across the country and eventually being the subject of an episode of the hit podcast How Did This Get Made?. Any film harboring a scene during which a grown man is stabbed to death with an ear of corn by a werecat (boy, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write) does deserve a certain level of derision, but not to the point of making it a laughingstock in the annals of horror movie history.
Sleepwalkers is a blast.
There are some interesting concepts at play that are executed quite well, which is to be expected with class act director Mick Garris (Psycho IV: the Beginning, The Stand) behind the camera and an original screenplay penned by the one and only Stephen King (most of your childhood nightmares). And let me tell you, that pedigree shines through in the finished product, just not as brightly as it should.
I’ll be the first to admit that it seems like King is not firing on all cylinders with this one, but interestingly enough, the themes and plot devices he implements in his screenplay for Sleepwalkers would be revisited in later works. If nothing else, Sleepwalkers is a dry run for a lot of forthcoming material.
The theme of a women reclaiming her own sexual agency from monstrous oppressors would be honed to high art in his novel, Gerald’s Game (which was released a month after Sleepwalkers). To be fair, there is a lot of screaming and classic “final girl” behavior from the heroine of Sleepwalkers, Tanya (played by Mädchen Amick), but she’s a fighter, not just a survivor. In fact, Tanya is such a fighter that she stabs the aforementioned oppressor (who is a literal monster) in the eye with a fucking corkscrew during the second act. While the real hero of the film, Clovis the Cat, is the one who saves Tanya in the end, it doesn’t make her any less of a strong female protagonist.
What King has always been good at is creating mythology within his dense world.
The Sleepwalkers themselves have a storied history, one filled with personal tragedy, persecution, and…um incest. Okay, that last one doesn’t really build the lore; it’s just messed up. But it’s oddly familiar for fans of King’s work. The mother/son dynamic between Charles and Mary would later be echoed in Mr. Mercedes. And King employing nomadic psychic vampires as villains would later be seen in The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep. Clearly, these kitty people had a lasting impact on King, or, at the very least, were the groundwork for better iterations of themselves.
As for the directing, Mick Garris has always been reliable in knowing where to place the camera to get the best bang for the viewer’s buck even if most of his framing for expository scenes can often come off as bland. I’d argue that Sleepwalkers is visually his best work, but the only problem is that Garris’ style, (or maybe lack thereof), actually hinders the effectiveness of the batshit craziness that fills every scene.
This is what keep Sleepwakers from achieving greatness.
The film plays it safe. What Sleepwalkers needed was the Romero touch, and no, that isn’t a slight against Garris. Let me explain: Back in 1982, George A. Romero directed Stephen King’s first screenplay, Creepshow, which is equal parts hilarious and horrifying, even today. What made Creepshow have such a lasting impact was that Romero and King were on the exact same wavelength while making it. They knew they were creating a big, broad, campy horror film to pay homage to the EC comics they grew up reading in the ‘50s, and everyone else on the production played along.
Sleepwalkers however, doesn’t have that unique identity. It’s too prim and proper in its presentation. There are too many campy jokes, ridiculously broad acting decisions, and far too many horror icon cameos (seriously, everyone is in this thing) to pretend that the film a straight up horror movie.
Perhaps this is Stephen King diving into self-parody.
There are just as many call backs to King’s body of work as there are elements that will later repeat themselves. The nomadic monster (specifically a vampire or were-creature of some sort) is a big trope within horror as a genre, but it was featured heavily in ‘Salem’s Lot and Cycle of the Werewolf. We see King poking fun at his reoccurring small-town law enforcement characters by making them incompetent when the chips are down. King also brings in a cat as a hero, something that subverts feline characters from previous works while simultaneously pays homage to an earlier screenplay, Cat’s Eye.
One might even see a parallel between the silliness of adapting the short story “Children of the Corn” into multiple films (one was already released and the second was announced by the time Sleepwalkers showed up in theaters) to the silliness of literally killing a man with corn…
…Okay, that one might be a stretch
Despite its uneven presentation, Sleepwalkers is persistently entertaining, no matter what mindset you watch it in. Its silliness is a delight and King’s self-parody references are too frequent to be coincidental. There is plenty here to love and maybe the fact that I saw Sleepwalkers at a young age is why it left a lasting impression on me. Before I fell in love with his novels and short stories, it was King’s screenplays, specifically Sleepwalkers, along with Cat’s Eye, Pet Sematary, and Creepshow that started my journey into King’s dominion. I’m glad that most of the kitties in these works were heroic and very lovable.
Sorry, Church. You’re too scary.