In this edition of The Silver Lining, we’ll be tackling Mick Garris and Stephen King’s unfairly maligned Sleepwalkers!
For every successful Stephen King adaptation, there are usually a handful of lesser projects lurking in its shadow. From Dreamcatcher to Lawnmower Man, the King of Horror actually has quite a few box-office bombs under his belt, with some fans justifying this by claiming that adaptations miss out on crucial inner monologues and emotional subtext. However, there is one Stephen King project that suggests that there might be more to the middling reception of some of these movies than the adaptational process.
Naturally, I’m referring to Mick Garris’ Sleepwalkers, the one and only time that Stephen King wrote a story specifically for the big screen (or “scream”, as the posters gleefully announced). Back in the early 90s, King’s tales were already sizzling hot properties at movie studios, so Columbia Pictures immediately accepted King’s offer to write an original screenplay for a brand-new movie.
Influenced by classic monster flicks like 1942’s Cat People, King came up with a bizarre tale following an incestuous pair of vampiric shape-shifters (Brian Krause and Alice Krige) who move to a small town in Indiana as they continue their search for virginal victims to sustain them.
While the studio originally chose Rupert Wainwright to helm the feature, his insistence on rewriting parts of the story led to King championing another director to take Rupert’s place. That’s how Mick Garris and Stephen King began their first partnership, with the writer specifically choosing Garris to take over Sleepwalkers due to his work on the underrated Psycho IV.
With the movie boasting an original script that would surprise even die-hard fans of King’s work and an up-and-coming genre director with a unique vision, it makes sense that fans and media outlets were expecting Sleepwalkers to be yet another horrific hit.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
Stephen King’s name goes a long way when trying to get butts into seats, so it stands to reason that Sleepwalkers doubled its $15 million production budget at the box office. Unfortunately, that didn’t help much with critics, as the film currently holds a disappointing 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, the movie has even shown up on several “worst horror movie of all time” lists, becoming somewhat popular on the internet as a cinematic punching bag for online movie reviewers.
Many complaints were (and still are) directed at the film’s general lack of scares, with several critics comparing the flick to a teenage romance that just so happens to feature some laughable supernatural elements. There was also plenty of criticism directed at the absurd mythology surrounding the titular Sleepwalkers, from their unexplained superpowers to the exact rules behind their feeding rituals – not to mention their bizarre rivalry with domestic cats.
This lack of narrative cohesion extends to the rest of the movie as well, with the picture never really deciding on a single protagonist and just blindly following a random assortment of characters as they stumble towards a foregone conclusion. Mädchen Amick’s Tanya isn’t really fleshed out as anything more than a victim, and not enough time is spent on Krige and Krause to make them proper anti-heroes.
The wildly varying tone was also a problem for most audiences, as the film goes from slasher-inspired satire to serious family drama so fast that it’s liable to give some viewers whiplash. Individually, many of the movie’s strange moments work (like the “no vegetables, no dessert” one-liner or that shocking arm removal), but these scenes never manage to sustain tension, making it hard to feel legitimately scared.
THE SILVER LINING
This isn’t the first time that we’ve covered a Stephen King / Mick Garris team-up on The Silver Lining and I think there’s a reason for that. From NBC’s The Shining to Riding the Bullet, these two storytellers have a habit of polarizing audiences with their old-school collaborations – which might have something to do with their specific set of narrative influences. Both creators appear to draw from low-budget creature features and cheesy b-movies, and these campy elements are blasting on all cylinders in Sleepwalkers.
Sure, Sleepwalkers isn’t a particularly scary movie, but it doesn’t really have to be. It’s quite clear that the goal here was to make an intentionally absurd and thoroughly entertaining monster movie – and judging by those merits, I’d argue that Sleepwalkers is an incredibly successful midnight movie. It’s just a shame that general audiences didn’t see it that way back in ’92.
However, even if you’re not a fan of tongue-in-cheek retro horror, there are plenty of individually great elements here that would have been celebrated had they been a part of other Stephen King projects. For example, the film gives just as much attention to the Sleepwalker duo as Tanya’s family, letting audiences decide for themselves exactly how they should feel about these characters (though I admit it’s hard to sympathize with people who keep skinned cats in their front yard).
Alice Krige is also phenomenal in her role as the Sleepwalker matriarch, with her performance ranging from legitimately threatening to laugh-out-loud comical without missing a beat (I mean, only she could have pulled off that corn-on-the-cob kill with a straight face). Plus, the movie boasts a star-studded collection of cameos that are sure to please genre fans.
Finally, I adore the disgusting sphynx-cat-like design of the titular monsters. The effects might not always be up to snuff -especially during transformations- but the suits themselves are always eerie to look at. And the less said about that disturbing sex scene the better…
Ultimately, I appreciate how Sleepwalkers’ odd collection of idiosyncrasies makes it more fun than a simple straight-faced monster movie. It’s not exactly It, but there’s a cartoony sense of humor here that makes this odd flick worth revisiting 3 decades down the line. Plus, it’s sure to entertain bored housecats, as my own little feline horror fan seemed intrigued by the story’s cat-based mayhem.
Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.