When pal Amanda by Night (of Made For TV Mayhem) invited Kindertrauma to join in on the VALERIE HARPER BLOGATHON she was orchestrating, we could not possibly refuse. Fact is, although she is better known for many other gigs, HARPER starred in what is simply the best (and most kindertraumatic!) made-for-television horror flick of the slash-happy eighties. Yes, once again I am talking about DON’T GO TO SLEEP! If you’re not familiar with that title then I beg you to yank your horror-head out of the zombie sand and give it a look-see. You will not be sorry. Having covered this one before you may think I have nothing more to say, but you’d be wrong because I have yet to give this gem the “five favorite things” treatment. Here are my five favorite things about DON’T GO TO SLEEP…
THE OPENING CREDITS! Right out the starting gate DON’T GO TO SLEEP is humming it’s own quirky tune. Black and white title cards flash and they’re so low-tech shaky you might think you’ve stumbled upon a home movie of a camping trip. Lullaby music box chirpings blast and then are cut off indiscriminately by the sound of whooshing traffic. This happens again and again throughout the prelude. I’m sure that somebody missed the effect that they were going for by a couple of miles but the resulting awkwardness of the overreach must be superior to what they were aiming for anyway. It’s slapdash, makeshift and yet still sets an appropriate mood. This movie is all about the treacly chimes of childhood being upset by jagged blasts of harsh, startling reality.
THE DIRECTION! Made for TV movies have their own set of advantages and disadvantages compared to their theatrical counterparts. Sometimes the unavoidable restraints can result in a static affair or the director not having as much leeway to express himself visually. This is not the case here. RICHARD LANK (who also steered 1978’s effectively eerie NIGHT CRIES) has a field day playing with bizarre angles, distorted perspectives and unusual POV shots. I think he may even have invented the flying lizard cam and the rolling pizza cutter cam. Prime time doesn’t allow for much gore but LANK moves ahead undaunted. Rather than show a head smashing into the driveway, he quickly cuts to a watermelon being dropped and bursting apart upon the kitchen floor. Message received loud and clear!
THE CLOSING! What better gift to leave your audience than a final image branded into their horrified brains for all eternity? DON’T GO TO SLEEP does just that in a seemingly effortless way without resorting to bells and whistles and elaborate effects. Much like SATAN’S TRIANGLE (in my mind, the greatest made for TV movie of the supernatural seventies), DON’T places its final winning card on the preternatural power of one enigmatic Cheshire smile. The maniacal faux-sweet image actually appears several times throughout the film but its final presentation is so gruesomely uncanny that it’s difficult to shake or even interpret why it’s so effective. I seriously believed for years that a skull was superimposed upon the image a’la Norman Bates in PSYCHO, but I guess that was my imagination! True cinematic alchemy!
THE STRAIGHTJACKET! I’m sorry but it’s satisfying to see anybody who was in the movie ANNIE wind up in a straight jacket!
THE CAST! Are you kidding me? DUEL’s DENNIS WEAVER, ROSEMARY’S BABY’s RUTH GORDON and POLTERGEIST’S OLIVER ROBINS! It’s a horror fan’s dream team! Both ROBIN IGNICO as Mary and KRISTIN CUMMING as Jennifer excel where most child actors would have failed. And then there’s VALARIE HARPER who we are specifically honoring today. I’m thinking DON’T GO TO SLEEP may not exactly be the highlight of her long career but yes, of course, she brings everything she’s got regardless. I love her and WEAVER together tackling screaming matches like they’re in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and ad-libbing under their breath whenever they damn well feel like it. I’m sure some folks have a hard time seeing past the campy surface but to me, that’s just one layer out of zillions. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore and what a shame.
DON’T GO TO SLEEP is a lively watch but it never shirks from the subject of death and grieving, topics that the horror genre is especially fit to explore. It’s easy to forget that as modern horror continues to be corralled toward action/comic book power fantasies instead. I say don’t feel bad for VALERIE HARPER; she’s not going anyplace you’re not going too. As she faces whatever is next (total recovery says me), I stand more impressed with her wisdom than her bravery. She knows its not how you die but how you live that matters. “We’re all terminal” she says and there’s nothing truer than that. I think I’ll save my sorrow for someone less vividly alive, less admirably “awake”.
Dash O’ Trivia: Guess what VAL‘s last name is in DON”T GO TO SLEEP! Answer: Hogan! Wha-wha-what? This calls for some back up from Turnidoff!