“Don’t Go to Sleep” (1982)

When watching a TV show like The Walking Dead, I’m endlessly amazed at how much blood and gore they’re allowed to get away with. People have been beheaded, disemboweled, torn in half, brutally beaten to death, and, of course, eaten by zombies, all on screen, sparing the audience nothing. The fifth season ended with a guy trapped in a revolving door as his face gets ripped off. It all gets a little mind-numbing after a while, especially in comparison with TV horror of the 70s and 80s, which was a little more…restrained, let’s say.

Now I’m not saying that was better, just different. Take Salem’s Lot as an example–though there are a couple genuinely scary moments, particularly little Ralphie Glick as a hideously grinning vampire, and the recently deceased Mike Ryerson demanding that Matt Burke “look at meeeeeeee”, overall it really pulls its punches. No one is ever actually shown being bitten by a vampire on screen, it’s merely implied. In one scene, the town realtor (played by Fred Willard, of all people), having just been scared off by his lover’s angry husband, runs into something even scarier. Or so we assume, as the scene just freezes on Willard’s surprised face as a shadow falls over him, and then cuts to commercial. We don’t see what surprises him, or find out what happens to him, because he’s never seen again. Willard’s character is actually a composite of two characters in the book,  and the one who meets this particular fate does show up again later, to considerably more terrifying effect. With the limitations network television once put on portraying violence, or even anything particularly scary, the scene in the movie comes off as kind of goofy more than anything else. For all the audience knows, he could have run into a Jehovah’s Witness, or a particularly pushy Girl Scout.

Don’t Go to Sleep, airing in 1982 and produced by Aaron Spelling, is an interesting entry in the genre, pairing a brutal premise (psychotic kid slaughters almost her entire family) with the softball sensibilities of TV horror. Somehow I missed this when it originally aired, which is a shame, because it probably would have made much more of the intended impact on me at age ten. To watch it for the first time as a jaded, middle-aged crank is to focus on the hokier aspects of it, like the “spooky” music box theme music, or an iguana giving an old lady a heart attack.

It stars Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper as Philip and Laura Hogan (yes, meaning Valerie Harper played a “Mrs. Hogan” more than once), who move to an isolated home far outside of Los Angeles with their children, Mary (Robin Ignico) and Kevin (Oliver Robins, playing an evil twin to his character in Poltergeist), and Laura’s mother (Ruth Gordon). They move to the new house, unsubtly numbered 13666 (it makes you wonder why they didn’t go one step further and have them living on Murderkill Lane), to start over after the accidental death of their oldest child, Jennifer (Kristin Cumming).

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As is usually the case in movies where middle class white people move into a new house, things start going downhill almost immediately, when Mary encounters ghostly visions of Jennifer. This is one ghost who isn’t content with just a little slamming doors and stealing car keys mischief. Despite being dressed like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jennifer means fuckin’ business, and recruits Mary in seeking revenge for her death, for which, while still an accident, everyone in the family inadvertently bears some responsibility.

A chilling notion to be sure, except that never has a family more richly deserved to be tormented by a murderous ghost than this one. Well, let me be fair, Laura is okay, though I suspect she’s downing Valium by the fistful, not just to cope with the loss of her child, but also to put up with the shitheads who are still alive. Philip, her husband, is a whiny workaholic obsessed with keeping up appearances. Grandma is an irascible old bag who openly favors the deceased Jennifer over her other two still living grandchildren. And then there’s Kevin, who makes the kid in Problem Child seem tolerable. Kevin spends much of the movie picking on Mary, being a tattletale, and screaming about sharing his room, sharing his toys, and not being able to play with a Bunsen burner, among other things. This little creep doesn’t seem all that sad about his dead sister, but you can bet he’d blow an aneurysm if his piece of cake was 1/16th of an inch smaller than everyone else’s.

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These people can’t be killed soon enough, and thankfully Jennifer (or rather, Mary, acting as her agent) gets on that relatively fast. Grandma is scared to death by Kevin’s pet iguana. Philip takes a bath with a portable radio. Kevin is pushed off the roof while trying to retrieve a Frisbee (after screaming at Mary for getting it caught up there). It probably doesn’t reflect well on me to say that I was happy when a child died in a movie, but it was incredibly satisfying when this kid ate it (and clearly no one in the movie liked him either, as only three people show up at his funeral, four if you count the priest). It also doesn’t reflect well on me to say that I found the scene funny, but when a shot of a kid, or anyone, really, falling off a roof immediately cuts to a shot of a watermelon smashing on the ground, you can’t help but laugh. I don’t imagine the filmmakers intended it to be funny, because it wouldn’t have been in keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie, but it is.

It’s not a spoiler to say that it’s Mary committing the murders the whole time, supposedly at Jennifer’s command. The “suspense” aspect of it is whether Mary really is communicating with Jennifer’s ghost, or has just gone mad with guilt and grief over her death. That question is answered at the very end, which is the sole legitimately creepy moment. TV horror seemed to jump directly from discreetly going to commercial just before someone is killed to covering every available surface in as much viscera as possible. That mid-point would have been a perfect fit for Don’t Go to Sleep, genuinely scary without resorting to cheap shocks, a la The Sixth Sense.

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Instead, we just get silly moments like “iguana cam,” and Mary stalking her mother with a pizza cutter. There’s just nothing particularly scary about a little girl (she’s supposed to be 12 but looks around 8) wielding a pizza cutter in a threatening manner. Obviously, children are capable of murder (if you’re in too good of a mood, read the “Minors convicted of murder”page on Wikipedia), but on TV and movies they invariably come off as campy, smiling innocently while hiding knives behind their backs.

Original airdate: December 10, 1982

Watch it here

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