Sunday, March 4, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid. Or in the case of this one, be very, very afraid.

Warning: there will be a lot of spoilers!

Your typical US white upper middle-class family – father Philip (Dennis Weaver), mother Laura (Valerie Harper), daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) and horribly obnoxious boy brat Kevin (Oliver Robbins) – move into a new home so they can live together with Laura’s mother Bernice (Ruth Gordon). Bernice, it appears, can’t  quite cope with life on her own anymore, and Laura must have pushed and prodded Philip a lot, because he and Bernice quite obviously loath one another other.

There’s a reason for that, as well as for Philip’s attempts at diffusing everything through humour and alcohol, Laura’s attempts to keep the family peace in ways bordering on the obsessive, Mary’s dreaminess and perhaps even Kevin’s loathsomeness, something beyond mere character incompatibilities and simple human weaknesses, something nobody in the family is actually talking about. As it turns out, the family had another daughter, Jennifer (Kristin Cumming), a girl close in age and everything else to Mary, whose death under circumstances the film will only explain much, much later has put the family and their relations under strains of guilt and grief nobody seems to be prepared to face outright.

So it isn’t exactly a surprise when Mary is plagued by horrible night terrors once they have moved into their new home. However, there’s more and worse going on here than “just” a little kid having a mental breakdown. The ghost of Jennifer begins appearing to Mary, at first frightening her but then reinitiating the co-dependent sibling relationship they once had. However, as Jennifer explains, various other family members are standing between them and being happy together again forever. She knows what to do about them, though.

If you’re like me, operating under the idea that the FCC rules of the time must have made it basically impossible to create TV films that were actually frightening and disturbing in more than a manner evoking pleasant chills (or a pleasing terror, if you would), Richard Lang’s film will come as something of a wake-up call. For, have no doubt about it, this is an absolutely ruthless film that directly and rather fearlessly attacks its themes of guilt and grief head-on in ways you won’t see too often on screens big or small, while adding the charming little plot of a child murdering the rest of her family with all the implications this has.

Lang, in whose filmography this seems to be a rather singular exception in tone and style, working off a script by Ned Wynn, who also has nothing else on offer which goes quite this deep and far, not only manages to portray the fissures between the members of the family and their increasing mental disintegration with subtlety and efficiency, trusting an audience’s ability to read visual cues and some wonderful physical acting to understand relationships between people. He also uses rather traditional elements of gothic ghost stories, creating a certain dream-like quality that turns into nightmare, as well as holding up a mood of slowly increasing dread and helplessness. The film’s main horror set pieces are very well realized on a technical level but what really makes these moments sing (not a pretty song, mind you) is how thoughtful the supernatural elements, the thematic concerns about guilt, grief and the immense pressures these feelings put on a family as a social unit, are resonating with each other, how much every part of the film belongs to the next.

Let me also emphasize again how ruthless the film is: grandmothers and little boys are killed by a dead little girl with the help of a living little girl, said little girl ends up in what looks like the worst mental health institution this side of a Gothic novel, and the mothers suffers what looks and sounds like a fate much worse than any death could ever be; and I don’t even mean her destroyed family. Harper’s final scream is absolutely haunting. Oh, and everybody is sort of actually somewhat guilty of what they feel guilty for, the white middle-class family clearly being a place where the repressed returns with a vengeance.

The acting as a whole is mostly brilliant too, starting with Harper’s and Weaver’s respective abilities to portray frayed people under ever increasing duress from inside and outside, while all giving a hint of what once drew them together, as well as Gordon’s portrayal of an elderly woman who clearly loathes getting old and still having to fight her own feelings of guilt and grief. The children are a bit more variable, because they are children, yet Ignico and Cumming hit the important notes spot-on.

Adding to all this is an emotional honesty I found utterly surprising, particularly in a medium that tends to the melodramatic when it comes to the portrayal of human emotions. It’s not as if there isn’t any melodrama here, but it is used in moments where its heightened sense is of use to the film. In other places – particularly scenes between Gordon and Harper and a loud, painful and quite brilliantly acted confrontation between Harper and Weaver – are raw, direct, and not terribly easy to watch.

Why this honest-to-Cthulhu masterpiece of genre filmmaking isn’t available to you or me via the wonder of Blu-ray – or at least a decent DVD – is anyone’s guess.

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