On December 10th, 1982 ABC aired the horror-thriller DON’T GO TO SLEEP at 9PM. This “ABC Friday Night Movie” was produced and directed by Richard Lang, executive produced by Aaron Spelling & Douglas S. Cramer, and written by actor/screenwriter Ned Wynn. The unique production combined BAD SEED-inspired evil child elements with the popular slasher movie formula of its day while still tightly embracing the heart of a classic gothic ghost story. The end result (in my opinion anyway) is arguably the best made-for-TV horror film of its decade.
When recovering from the death of a child maybe it’s not a good idea to move into a house with the address of 13666.
Dad Phillip (Dennis Weaver), Mom Laura (Valerie Harper), daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) son Kevin (Oliver Robins), and cantankerous grandma Bernice (the great Ruth Gordon) are hoping for a new start after eldest child Jennifer (Kristin Cumming) died in a tragic car fire. All’s well until the ghost of Jennifer seemingly appears before Mary, vocalizing a grudge that won’t be satiated until the entire family is dead. Is Mary mad as a hatter and hallucinating her sister or has her devious sibling really come back for revenge? In any case, burning beds, iguana-induced heart attacks, rooftop falls and baths with electricity ensue. Eventually, Mary is prime suspect number one and is fitted with a child-sized straight jacket and shoved into a padded room where she recounts the genesis of the horror and becomes the poster child for those suffering from middle child syndrome everywhere.
Two scenes, in particular, seem to have been seared into viewer’s memories deeper than others. One involves a pizza cutter being used as a threatening murder weapon (hey, this was during the eighties slasher boom when literally no tool found in a kitchen, garage, or barn was out of bounds as an instrument of death), and the other concerns the movie’s door slamming mind-blowing closure. The latter delivers a visual so eerie that it boggles the mind how it could be so perfectly constructed without some kind of trickery. I won’t spoil much here but it presents the creepiest Cheshire Cat grin I pray I’ll ever have to witness. Not since I think, THE HAUNTING (‘63) has a singular image carried so much phantasmagorical weight.
Momentary lapses toward soap opera histrionics aside, DON’T GO TO SLEEP delivers an exceptionally dark vision of family dysfunction, sibling rivalry, grief, and finally insanity. Unlike the same year’s ghost spectacle POLTERGEIST (which shares actor Oliver Robins) there’s no “phew!” happy relief ending and few family members survive. You may need a neck brace for the way this movie’s mood swings from campy to cutthroat to undeniably uncanny and back again. Absurdities abound (that pizza cutter!) but don’t be surprised if this TV movie’s final image is difficult to shake from your brain.