Logline: A mourning family is haunted by the malevolent presence of the recently-departed Jennifer, their beloved but awfully mean spirited daughter and sister—is Jennifer’s spirit influencing her younger sister Mary to commit evil acts? Is Mary simply dangerously delusional? Ghosts?!
Once again proving that the made-for-TV horror flicks of the 70s and 80s were every bit the peers of their cinematic counterparts, Don’t Go to Sleep is a fantastic, understated primetime chiller. While the film doesn’t quite shake those unmistakable made-for-television touches (limited location shooting, 4:3 compositions, past-their-prime star TV performers), it also manages to transcend that label—stylish camerawork*, unusually strong performances, and a ruthless attitude make it what I can only imagine was a fairly horrifying evening of television back in December of 1982.
Like similar TV horrors, Don’t Go to Sleep is a slow-burn—its horror develops through the suspense of inaction, coupled with our knowledge of the inevitability of things going horribly for our principle cast at any moment. And although those horrible moments are more than worth the build-up, one also has the sense that the film has had its running time padded slightly (perhaps for contracted broadcast length?). This slight foot-dragging is the film’s only noteworthy flaw (and a minor one at that)—especially noticeable after the film’s climax in its far-too protracted dénouement.
But back to the things that work, for there is a slew of them. Performances are across the board solid, perhaps even better than the material itself: Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude) is amusingly cantankerous and heartbreakingly fragile as Grandmother Bernice; the parents (Valerie Harper and Dennis Weaver) have some very well-played scenes of falling apart at the seams that cleverly skirt the potential for melodrama (particularly one involving the fate of their son’s iguana, Ed, which we are informed is the stupidest possible name for an iguana); and the children are annoying like real children, not stage children (the young actress playing Mary is especially good at the film’s climax, playing evil incarnate with a naïve simplicity but determined (and terrifying) physicality).
Also worth noting is that this is a film chock full of well-paced fright sequences. The inciting incident of Mary’s bed catching aflame for mysterious reasons is downright eerily surreal (I momentarily wondered if Bernice’s nasty habit of smoking in bed had, in some cosmically karmic coincidence, led to her granddaughter’s flaming bed rather than her own. Alas, the film takes a different route…). In addition, Don’t Go to Sleep deftly shoes in a particularly sharp pizza cutter as the most intimidating mundane household item caught on celluloid, a title previously held by Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.
And, as noted, this is a fairly gutsy movie—knocking off an entire family over your running-time doesn’t exactly sound like the typical family-friendly primetime fare. Moreover, the film has a pleasantly sick sense of humor about itself peeking around the corners (only the gnarliest of trash cinema would match cut a scene of a young boy falling to his death with a shot of his own mother smashing apart a melon). It's nearly impossible to chart the line of descent leading from TV flicks like Don’t Go to Sleep, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and the numerous Dan Curtis productions to the unending SyFy originals and Stephen King miniseries that are drooled out by the networks today. It was a special time in TV land back in December of ’82, and one deserving of our interest.
*a lengthy and masterful suspense sequence with extreme close ups and point-of-view shots near the end of the film (let’s dub it “the pizza cutter banister sequence”) explicitly recalls all our slasher favorites but arguably does the trick best of all. It works so well because the person from whose perspective we’re viewing things appears positively possessed and so unlike herself from this interior perspective—it instantly elevates her childish accidental murder-spree to something far more hands-on.