Sleepwalkers ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Stephen King’s books are very successful. Movies based on Stephen King’s books have been, in general, successful. Movies Stephen King has had a direct hand in creating, meanwhile, have resulted in “Maximum Overdrive,” the crappy version of “The Shining” nobody talks about, and “Sleepwalkers.” “Sleepwalkers” has the sort of premise you’d expect from King’s cocaine years but was, amazingly, made in the early nineties, after he kicked the habit. It was also directed by Mick Garris, a man who has made many not-that-great movies out of Stephen King’s books and stories. I guess what I’m saying is, going into this one, I kept my expectations low.

“Sleepwalkers” begins with some made-up bullshit about sleepwalkers, cat-like monsters and precursors to vampires, that feed on the souls of virgins and are also, oddly, frightened of cats. The film follows what might be the last two sleepwalkers in existence. Charles and Mary Brady are an incestuous mother/son duo who are always on the run, fleeing from town to town after claiming another victim. After settling into a small, Indiana town, Charles has his eye on Tanya, a virginal girl he goes to school with. When his mother’s appetite for souls grows stronger, Charlie has to pursue the girl more viciously.

The only thing “Sleepwalkers” really has going for it is its monsters. There aren’t many were-cats in fiction and even fewer on screen. Instead of pulling its titular creatures from some mythology somewhere, it makes up its own damn monsters. The Sleepwalkers are shapeshifters, able to assume human form. They have a number of powers beyond a human’s ability. In addition to the typical super strength, they can cast illusions, making themselves invisible or changing the appearances of things. However, there are faults in their powers. Mirrors show their true faces. Despite being cat-people themselves, the only thing that can seemingly kill a sleepwalker are the claws of a cat. Apparently, a cat’s scratch causes their skin to burst into flames. Cats instinctively pick up on their monstrous qualities. Every home Charles and Mary travel too always has a fleet of pussycats waiting outside. In addition to all of this, the sleepwalkers are pretty cool looking monsters too. The effects are a bit rubbery, the faces’ unexpressive. However, the designs pick up on the eerie qualities of cats. The eyes are black and beady, the ears are pointed, and the skin is pale and filled with wrinkles.

“Sleepwalkers” is most valuable as a trashy horror movie. And, oh man, is it trashy. This is a film that opens with a cat leaping out from behind a closed door. The focus on the Brady’s incestuous relationship is strictly sensationalist, with close-ups on their flicking tongues and sweaty, entwined bodies. The gore in the movie is explosive and comes often. Glen Shaddix gets his hand torn off, blood splattering on the inside of a windshield. A ridiculous car chase follows, the fleeing Charles pursued by Dan Martin’s Andy, a black deputy who carries his cat everywhere, plays games with him while on the road, and making up vulgar, non-sense songs. (That last one is a very King-esque touch.) The film seems obsessed with using non-traditional objects as stabbing weapons. A pencil is stabbed in an ear, heads are bashed with a camera and a flower vase, a man is impaled on a fence row and, most infamously, someone is killed with a corn cob. When Charles turns into a cat person in front of Tanya, he starts spouting cheesy one-liners. The best scene in the movie comes when Mary takes the fight to Tanya’s parents, decimating a fleet of cops, tearing Ron Perlman’s arm off. The violence is so excessive that I wonder if King didn’t write the movie as a parody of trashy eighties splatter flicks.

Most of the performances are keeping in this tone. Brian Krause is broad and ugly as Charles, really overdoing it in several key moments. Madchen Amick is a screaming damsel in distress, doing little to distinguish the part. Most of the cops are goofy too, like Jim Haynie, Ron Perlman, or the aforementioned Dan Martin. Glenn Shadix hams it up as the English professor who exists just to pad the body count and whose disappearance is never brought up. As he usually does, Mick Garris fills out the bit parts with cameos from other horror directors. This film’s lot includes John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, and King himself in a very showy part.

Sandwiched between all this ridiculousness is Alice Krige as Mary. Krige’s performance is one hundred percent sincere. She invests the part with a pure power and a steely beauty. She is determined and passionate yet also vulnerable, tearing up over her son’s fate. It’s the sort of part Krige usually plays, a villainous and sexual older woman, and she’s excellent each time. Her acting deserves a better movie.

The score is loud and abrasive but, before the end credits roll, Garris turns his camera towards an army of cats fleeing a burning yard while Enya’s haunting “Boudica” plays on the soundtrack. If “Sleepwalkers” had a hundred more images like that, it would’ve been a classic. As it is, the movie can’t quite rise to the level of gory guilty pleasure. It’s a bit too minor and dumb even for that. Imagine what a young Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi could have done with corn cob murder and cat people. In the hands of Mick Garris, it’s goofy and forgettable.

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