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Friday, November 11, 2011

TV Movie Terror: Don't Go To Sleep (1982) review

CULT FILM FAVES NOT ON DVD presents: TV Movie Terror!


Dennis Weaver (Philip), Valerie Harper (Laura), Robin Ignico (Mary), Kristin Cumming (Jennifer), Oliver Robins (Kevin), Ruth Gordon (Bernice)

Directed by Richard Lang

The Short Version: Underrated TV horror movie has a great cast, performances, script, music, photography and nifty story about a vengeful girl returning from the grave to exact vengeance on her family. Psychological overtones also give the impression that the horror may hit closer to home. A cult favorite to many who saw it back in the early 1980s, the scene with the pizza cutter is what everybody remembers and is a stand out moment that acts as an inadvertent tip of the hat to the slasher movie. Released to tape, no DVD has yet to surface. This tense little spooker is well worth losing sleep to watch.

A family moves into a new home after a terrible accident cost them the life of their oldest daughter, Jennifer. Something sinister has followed them into the new house and begins haunting the youngest, somewhat disturbed daughter, Mary. Bizarre accidents begin claiming the lives of the family members, but is it Mary, or has Jennifer come back for revenge?

I'm sure that all of us--at one time or another--have been deathly afraid of climbing in, or out of bed for fear of some monster reaching out and grabbing a leg, or two. No doubt many of us share that old mainstay of the monster in the closet and the resident creeper hiding under our bed. DON'T GO TO SLEEP focuses on the latter as well as touching on the fear generated by being in a darkened room with the door closed. As a kid some of you may even recall lying in bed surrounded in darkness and imagining your toys or dolls looking back at you as if they were alive. Tobe Hooper touched on this in POLTERGEIST (regardless of the controversy over who actually directed it) which hit theaters several months earlier. Actually, DON'T GO TO SLEEP seems more like what Hooper's version would have been like had Spielberg not been on board for the big budget studio production. Incidentally, Oliver Robins (who plays Kevin here) played Robbie Freeling in the first two POLTERGEIST movies.

Original TV Guide ad for the films premiere December 10th, 1982

TV movies used to be a big deal back in the day and this is one of the best of a pretty proud pack of goosebumpers that includes such fondly remembered examples as DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973), TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) and DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981). That Aaron Spelling was behind it in a producers capacity adds some additional value to the overall prestige of this picture. Back then, to license theatrical blockbusters for television viewings was a costly endeavor. Luckily for the major television stations, there were alternatives. The 'Big Three', ABC, NBC and CBS resorted to shooting less expensive clones, or films that capitalized on a theme or idea from a big ticket extravaganza. The cult favorite, THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978) being one example aping the plotline from De Palma's CARRIE (1976).

Lang's entry into the ghost/killer kid sweepstakes is an occasionally stirring supernatural horror film that also builds an even more stable home within psychological thriller territory halfway through. The main question that arises is who exactly is doing the killing. Is it Jennifer back from the dead to exact a cruel revenge using Mary as her instrument of death, or is the tortured and increasingly unstable Mary calculatingly killing off her family one by one? The scenes with Mary and Jennifer plotting the deaths of their family are shown laced with this echoing, dream-like effect that would hint to us that the vengeful ghost of Jennifer is all in Mary's mind. Coincidentally, Mary drastically changes immediately after she accepts Jennifer's proposal of destroying the family unit. Mary becomes a spiteful, uniformly evil child who is rebellious towards her psychiatrist, plays mind games with her parents and sports a devilishly cherubic visage for the remainder of the film.

One of the films strengths is its script and performances that elevates this TV tale of terror above the confines of the medium. The themes of loss, the shifting of blame, regret, alcoholism and the depression brought about by repressing a past tragedy are all explored here. That the family unit attempts to cope with the loss of a child by moving into a new home only for this change of scenery to exacerbate the situation is well written by the hand of Ned Wynn. Boasting a few sincerely suspenseful and frightening moments, this could easily have been a theatrical release and Dominic Frontiere's musical score is a fantastic composition whose fanciful and foreboding cues lend a nightmarish quality to this picture. The cinematography of Chuck Arnold (THE BEAST ARE ON THE STREETS, MORE WILD WILD WEST) is exceptional with a lot of probing crane shots that add an extra punch to the movies most memorable moments.

Packed with some great actors of television and screen, Dennis Weaver had long enjoyed a grand career in TV westerns like GUNSMOKE before making the transition to major star status on shows like McLOUD. He had appeared in the taut, terror filled Spielberg TV movie classic DUEL (1971) and the STRAW DOGS styled small screen thriller, TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973). Valerie Harper was Mary Tyler Moore's best friend, RHODA, a series spin-off from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Ruth Gordon essentially reprises her Ma Beddoe role from both of the Clint classics, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980). Fans will also recognize Oliver Robins as the little boy from AIRPLANE 2: THE SEQUEL (1982) in addition to his two similar ghost acting gigs from the first two POLTERGEIST movies.

The notion of a murderous child was obviously a heady topic back then. BAD RONALD (1974) had also dabbled in the subject matter, but Lang's film goes the extra mile. Some of the shots of Mary and Jennifer discussing the impending deaths of their brother and parents as if it's some sort of kids game is more than a little unsettling. The suspense is ratcheted up to an alarming degree during the last half which contains the films most famous sequence involving a pizza cutter and a stairway bannister wherein the picture briefly tinkers around with slasher conventions.

The flashback to the initial tragedy is telling as is the padded room banter between a doctor and her Michael Myers-esque subject that surrounds it. The final scene rewards the viewer with one last shock that yet again blurs the line between the viewers perception of the psychological and the supernatural. It's a shame this has yet to make it to DVD, or show up in a restored version on cable. It did get a VHS release which is the source of the numerous bootlegs out there. Highly recommended, it's one of the best TV horror pictures that bears at least one shock sequence that has kept the film alive some thirty years after it first aired. I, like a lot of those that saw this back in the day when it premiered, will never look at pizza cutters the same way again!

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