For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Sleepwalkers is the only single-story feature-length script Stephen King wrote solely for the big screen. But were it among his late-’80s novels, it’s easy to envision a printed-page epigraph.
The first one is obvious, as it’s the 1992 film’s opening scroll (culled from a funny-sounding but fake source). The second is the first song with lyrics in Sleepwalkers, which turns instrumentals like Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” and Enya’s “Boadicea” into indicators of insidious intent.
That last one? Not in the movie at all. But consider the sexually explicit, classic-rock-loving, wink-nudging, sometimes dad-joking writer of Sleepwalkers. And consider that Nugent, at the time, had not yet retreated up his own ass into a stranglehold of rancid right-wing sycophancy. Back then it was probably still OK for King to quote Nugent at the front of a book. Nugent’s persona was oversexed shitkicker with an overdriven guitar and extremely single entendres. You could reasonably assume he was Republican, but why would you even wonder? Today, politics are nearly all anyone associates with a myopic, moronic man who nevertheless represents a malignant mutation of America’s conservative cancer — once again raging out of remission. Indeed, Nugent embraces the bullshit moral panic against which Sleepwalkers slings stealthy satire. The sort that ascended to presidential prominence in the 1980s alongside King in his most prolific decade. The real world’s lawful-evil counterpoint to the chaotic evil of King’s creations. And the subtext of a suitably bloody romp about oedipally incestuous, shapeshifting, telekinetic bipedal werecats who live off virginal energy and the common housecat named Clovis who opposes them. (Sleepwalkers is odd enough that it could have started in King’s cocaine wilderness, but it’s hard to pinpoint. Maximum Overdrive, OTOH …)
Jimmy Carter was the United States’ first evangelical Christian President. He just wasn’t interested in now-customary spineless acquiescence to their aims or paying disingenuous lip service to those whose checkbooks curry political favor. Yeah, yeah, Carter had a personal relationship with God. Blah, blah, blah. These folks wanted to know what he’d do to uphold the “integrity” of heterosexual marriage, oppose homosexual activities, restrict abortion even under the most violent circumstances, integrate church and state, and promote policies to proselytize all of these “virtues” to the non-Christians of the world.
When it became clear Carter’s (appropriate) answer was nothing, evangelicals did something — namely mobilize themselves in groups such as the Moral Majority, a cabal of conservative Christians led by Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. For good measure, such folks also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; after all, what better way to celebrate Jesus Christ’s return than in a bunker full of dudes while the world above burns in righteous nuclear hellfire? They also were integral to electoral wins for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and an onset for the current office’s oncologically orange outcome.
If the name Falwell feels familiar, that’s because Jerry Jr. just jumped ship from the Falwell family’s Liberty University amid revelations about his sexual proclivities. The Falwells are shitbags for sure, but they shouldn’t be kink-shamed. As long as there’s no violence, injury or exploitation, no one should. Furthermore, no one should care. Too often, the right-wing guise of trying to push buckwild behavior behind closed doors is a smokescreen for their escape hatch through to which excuse, or enable, truly destructive behavior. The predators of Sleepwalkers would better meet their need to feed in bigger cities, where their mauling would certainly be easier to write off as everyday violence. But the subtext here is their panic that there are so few virgins left anywhere in America. Oh, my! What will the world come to then?!
King’s first clue that Sleepwalkers isn’t just some modest piffle comes when he gives titular beasties a human alias matching that of pop culture’s quintessential suburban white family. Charles Brady (Brian Krause) and his mother, Mary (Alice Krige, dominating her second-best villainess role after the Borg Queen) “love to feed and feed to breed.” That’s how Charles puts it, anyway, during a high school creative writing class in Travis, Indiana, where Charles and Mary have relocated after a recent California slaughter. It’s an easy A for Charles and clever exposition for the film, which only has so much time to spend on its villains’ nomadic backstory.
Any little kids the Bradys may consume are certainly virgins, but they’re also just energy bars. The Bradys need full-grown virgin buffets, which are harder and harder to come by. In scenes that cross Zalman King with Tennessee Williams, the Bradys do what most folks do to distract themselves from impending doom — make passionate love, albeit incestuously and in a way that creates supernatural purple light like a Highlander quickening in a quiet storm.
Enter dorky-dancing virgin Tanya (played by Mädchen Amick in a 180 from her work as siren Shelly Johnson on Twin Peaks), who likes Charles’ story and adores his Zach Morris meets Cobra Kai style. Obviously, Charles aims to extract Tanya’s essence to share with Mary. But Sleepwalkers has asides that King would spin out into several-chapter subplots about heartland hypocrisy had he gone the route of prose. There is the local cop with “allergies to the IRS,” an Indiana State Police captain who lasciviously offers to spank Tanya if her parents won’t do it, and Mr. Fallows, the suspicious creative writing teacher who tries extorting sex from Charles in exchange for silence about what he’s learned of the Bradys’ past. Charles responds by morphing into a cat-man and ripping off Mr. Fallows’ pawing little mitts: “Some people need to learn to keep their hands to themselves … here’s yours!” Indeed, the second act of Sleepwalkers finds Krause running rampant with comically exaggerated taunts, which culminates in this top-five moment for any Stephen King movie period.
Before assuming kabob form, that kindly cop sings goofy songs about a one-balled man headed to the rodeo with his pecker in his hand to his pal, Clovis the Attack Cat (as his collar reads). King’s book version would probably have entire chapters from Clovis’s POV. Here, he makes do with Kittyvision as Charles is able to render himself, and his blue Trans Am, invisible to all but Clovis’s suspicious eyes. (You can set your watch and warrant on Charles’s ability to “dim” as a Dark Tower reference along with the Bradys’ kinship to that saga’s shape-shifting Skin-Men.)
Eventually, Clovis and his feral friends exact revenge. But the Bradys do a lot of damage, first. They attack Tanya’s parents (who are, coincidentally, also Ferris Bueller’s parents). In a climax of small-town soundstage spectacle, Sleepwalkers serves up one-bullet car explosions and the sight of Ron Perlman bashed by his own broken arm after his fingers are eaten. Watching Charles’s response to a cat scratch might make you feel better about your own feline allergies. And yes, someone is impaled on a picket fence. Sleepwalkers certainly doesn’t skimp on the goofiness or symbology.
But King gives no quarter of quirk to the inevitable moment when Charles attacks Tanya. “It doesn’t have to hurt!” Charles shouts as he tries to yank her lifeforce from her body. You sense how King as author would expand on this, almost certainly a more brutal depiction and an even more lacerating aftermath. Tanya would survive and justly accuse Charles of rape. But would the “good” people of Travis believe her? Their reticence might reveal itself less out of pity for a newcomer like Charles, more out of a stubbornness that such things simply don’t happen in Travis, an upstanding conservative community. The incident would create conflict between Tanya and her parents, who’d have no reason to distrust their daughter but plenty of reasons to not pipe up about it. In the film, one sheriff’s deputy can barely vocalize that this was a rape attempt. Another cop refers to Tanya as “one hysterical little girl with a very vivid imagination.”
In the expanse of a book, perhaps Mary and Tanya would have found more common ground than they’d care to share — women resigned to a rotten existence as prey for hunters of different stripes. Maybe King would’ve positioned Mary’s eventual one-woman wrecking machine rampage as a Pied Piper leading the less-overt demons of Travis to their doom as punishment for deep-seated hypocrisy. While it’s easy to imagine all of this as the book’s backbone, it might have simultaneously been a tough nut for King to crack, especially on the heels of his masterful entwinement of bigotry, backwards thinking and supernatural evil in a door-stopper like It. In the grand scheme of King’s bibliography, his screenplay for Sleepwalkers might seem somewhat slight. Like his finest works, it’s anything but declawed.