Stephen King movies are such an institution at this point that it occurred to me to attempt this review in the style of the 80s Action reviews here at Ruthless, with many of the same questions applying to both. Corpse Count and Novelty Deaths obviously, and in the cheesiest ones (of which Sleepwalkers is certainly one), One Liners come into play as well. In place of the Stupid Chief, we have the Religious Nut/Asshole Authoritarian (often one and the same character), and Stupid Political Content could conceivably be replaced by Was There A “Magical Negro”? There is even a bit of crossover in the Venn diagram of 80s Action and Stephen King movies, in the forms of Maximum Overdrive and The Running Man.
A few other hypothetical categories (Was There A Writer Character? Was There An Alcoholic? Were They The Same Character?) don’t really apply to this one, but in most of the fun ways, Sleepwalkers is a pretty prime example of the 90s Stephen King brand. In case you were wondering, the Corpse Count is only about 8-12, depending on whether some of the characters we last see unconscious made it or not, but at least two dozen cats have been offed right from the start. We are treated to another common staple of the Stephen King movie in this opening scene: the Genre-Fave Cameo, in the form of Mark Hamill as a California sheriff investigating the cat corpse-strewn scene and delivering our first One Liner: “Whoever it was sure doesn’t like cats.”
Sleepwalkers, as we have been helpfully informed by the (definitely made-up) Chillicoathe Encyclopaedia of Arcane Knowledge, 1st Edition, 1884, are “nomadic shape-shifting creatures with human and feline origins [in other words, somebody done fucked a cat]. Vulnerable to the deadly scratch of the cat, the sleepwalker feeds upon the life-force of virginal human females. Probable source of the vampire legend.” Also, the source of the mummy with braces on its teeth Sheriff Mark Hamill discovers in that opening scene, presumably a virginal human female drained of her life-force.
By the time we meet Charles Brady (Brian Krause) and his mother, Mary (Alice Krige), now relocated to Indiana, there is no doubt they are the legendary monsters previously described. Their first scene also leaves little doubt as to the sexual nature of their relationship and, while Game of Thrones has done a lot since then to desensitize us all to onscreen incest, a later gratuitous sex scene really ups the ante by showing these two lumpy monstrosities coupling in their true forms. The primitive nature of the special effects only adds to the gross-out factor.
In his human form, Charles is the picture of charming youth, and absolutely irresistible to Tanya Robertson (Madchen Amick), a dorky obvious virgin who therefore fits the bill perfectly for Charles and his true lover, Mommy. Amick really plays up the part of the awkward dork, presumably to convince the audience of the character’s virginal status. Their meet-cute is cartoonishly awkward and when Charles visits her house for the first time, Tanya’s bedroom is positively strewn with bras and panties; her efforts to discreetly stash them out of his view becomes a minor comic setpiece.
Though there is no prominent writer character in this particular Stephen King movie (which also has nothing to do with Maine, shockingly), Charles does read an autobiographical and rather poetically written short story in class that earns him some big doe eyes from Tanya. Their teacher, Mr. Fallows (the great Glenn Shadix of Beetlejuice and Heathers fame), is less impressed, and it is he who would best fit the Asshole Authoritarian role, as he literally raps knuckles with a ruler and gets his verbal comeuppance from our “hero” in a classroom scene strongly reminiscent of Carrie.
Mr. Fallows (I swear it sounds like “Mr. Phallus” every time Charles says it) gets further comeuppance in our first onscreen kill, when Charles rips his hand off and tosses it to him whilst delivering the Schwarzenegger-worthy One Liner, “People really should learn to keep their hands to themselves. Here’s yours.” This qualifies as a Pre-Mortem One Liner, in fact, as Charles then chases the hapless Mr. Fallows into the woods and eats the fuck out of him. Not exactly sure what kind of sense that makes, since Fallows is definitely not a virginal human female, but maybe Charles just did it to make a point.
There is no “Magical Negro” in Sleepwalkers, but King has been known to be tone-deaf in other ways pertaining to race, so it is worth noting that there is only one black character in the movie, Deputy Sheriff Andy Simpson (Dan Martin), and his purpose is mainly goofy comic relief until he is killed. The same is true of Mr. Fallows before him, though, and both characters have about the same amount of screen time, so I’m gonna call it a wash. Clovis (played by Sparks), the cat Andy improbably drives around with in his squad car (and who is able to see Charles in his true form even when he “goes dim,” a magical ability almost as common in King’s villains as random psychic abilities are in his heroes), is the one who may be magic, as all cats are.
Andy is one of the relatively few confirmed onscreen Corpses, complete with One Liners (“Cop-kabob!” after Charles stabs him in the ear, followed by the Pre-Mortem “I don’t believe you fired a warning shot, Officer”), which leads to a slew of Genre-Fave Cameos. King himself appears as an annoying cemetery caretaker trying to absolve himself of any blame for the murders on his grounds, first to Tobe Hooper and then to Clive Barker (barely hiding his Liverpudlian accent for a single line of dialogue). In a subsequent scene, John Landis and Joe Dante appear as lab techs. This was director Mick Garris’s first collaboration with King, and it appears as though they both called in some favors.
My favorite cameo in this one, however, has to be Ron Perlman, partly because it seems so wrong-headed to have Ron Perlman in your movie about shape-shifting cat people, and then you just cast him as an ordinary human cop??? The man had just wrapped three seasons of Beauty and the Beast on television and would go on to play the Sayer of the Law in The Island of Dr. Moreau, not to mention Hellboy, and you don’t wanna put him in the makeup chair for a few hours maybe? Hell, he looks almost exactly like a lion even without makeup! Not for nothing, if you Google “ron perlman cat” you will get over one million image results.
Anyway, Perlman is terrific as an asshole cop too, and he makes a meal of his few scenes here, playing the kind of small but colorful supporting role he is so good at playing, and King is so good at writing. He gets a few memorable One Liners, opining of Tanya, “That girl needs a good smack on the butt, and if her Mommy and Daddy won’t do it, I’ll happily volunteer,” delivered with saliva-dripping lecherousness. My personal favorite, though, is when Sheriff Stevens (Jim Haynie) wanders too near to where Charles and Mary, having “gone dim,” are hiding and he visibly shivers. “Cold draft,” he explains (another huge King trope). “Go for one, could ya?” Captain Soames (Perlman) smugly retorts. Classic!
The best Novelty Death and Post-Mortem One Liner are saved for last, when Mary fatally stabs the annoying cop Horace (Monty Bane) in the back with corn on the cob and says, “No vegetables, no dessert. Those are the rules.” Which brings us to the other big question shared by both 80s Action and Stephen King movies: How Bad Is It Really?
I know I probably say this too often, but this is squarely in the so bad it’s good category. It has a sort of low-rent, soap opera-esque, TV-movie vibe, which makes sense because Garris has primarily worked on TV before and since, including many more collaborations with King that have held up better (The Stand) or worse (The Shining) over the years. The effects are comical at times, though as stated before, the practical effects have a visceral ugliness to them that holds up better than the CGI.
Most importantly, though, this is a movie that is aware of its own silliness but still plays it straight enough to not be annoying about it. Krige is a strong enough actress to pull off the emotional moments, and while the cartoonish violence and goofy dialogue strike a very different tone than the sort of sad Gothic romance suggested by those scenes, I wouldn’t have it any other way. “Here comes Johnny with his pecker in his hand, he’s a one-ball man and he’s off to the rodeo!”