Fans of ultra-obscure BritHorror will have reason to rejoice at this latest release in the BFI Flipside series. SLEEPWALKER is a mid-length feature, with a running time of fifty minutes. It’s written and directed by Saxon Logan, who is not a name anyone but the most obsessive of British cinephiles might be familiar with. There’s a good reason for this, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the main feature here, which is as fascinating as it is well made.
Wealthy couple Richard and Angela Paradise (Nickolas Grace and Joanna David) visit Marion and Alex Britain in their decaying family home of Albion. The planned dinner has to be cancelled after a tree falls through a window and destroys Marion’s preparations, and so the four of them head out to a restaurant. There they are served by waiters Fulton Mackay and Michael Medwin (filling in for movie director Lindsay Anderson at the last moment, apparently). The only other customer is elderly Raymond Huntley. There’s a long dinner conversation about the current (for 1984) state of the nation before the four of them return to Albion for the night. Once they are all in bed they are murdered one by one in a series of stylish and gory setups reminiscent of the work of Dario Argento, with lighting and an accompanying synthesiser score to match.
Since it’s recent resurgence on the movie scene, much has been written about SLEEPWALKER’s political subtext. It is indeed a biting satire about the state of Britain at the time, and there’s an excellent essay by Julian Grainger that accompanies this release to help you get the most out of that aspect of it. The film can, however also be enjoyed on a number of other levels. It’s extremely well made and acted, and, while comparisons can be made to the work of other directors, most notably Argento and Lindsay Anderson, SLEEPWALKER reminded me most of all of the weird and strange stories of Robert Aickman. There’s a similar feel to SLEEPWALKER as there is to the filmed version (by Dominique Othenin-Girard) of Aickman’s THE HOSPICE. Nothing we are being shown is quite right, the characters aren’t quite real, and the viewer gets the feeling they’re escaped from an especially bitter Alan Ayckbourn play and are now living in the limbo where such characters go when their creators have no further need of them. SLEEPWALKER is a deliciously weird and strange little picture, and if your tastes tend towards this direction, I can highly recommend it.
Because of the film’s short length, the BFI have seen fit to complement its double disc Blu-ray and DVD release with a suitable number of extras. First up is another mini-feature. THE INSOMNIAC is a 1971 piece from writer-producer-director Rodney Giesler and also runs for around fifty minutes. It’s an ideal co-feature for SLEEPWALKER because it again has a strong Aickmanesque feel to it. Morris Perry drives home from work to his tower block apartment, his dowdy wife and three children, only to find he can’t sleep. He gets up to find the sun is still shining, and so he goes for a drive. He ends up in a village where everything is closed and, after a run in with a couple of policemen wearing dark glasses, he gives a lift to a man in a dinner suit who is also wearing dark glasses and who offers to take him to a party. It’s at a country house where, despite the sunny weather, everyone is inside. They are also all well dressed, and when Morris tries to open the curtains everyone recoils and puts on dark glasses as well. He escapes, taking a beautiful girl (Valerie Van Ost from SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and CORRUPTION) with him. Eventually escaping their pursuers, they go for a nude swim and fall asleep. When Morris wakes up he is naked, alone, and back in the industrial wasteland he has tried to escape. Once again there’s a strong sense of strangeness here that makes THE INSOMNIAC well worth watching. It’s a decent little feature and again, highly recommended if you’re a fan of weird British cinema.
The true tragedy here is that both Saxon Logan and Rodney Giesler may well have gone on to make fine full length British horror projects but for the true horrors of the British film industry. Logan’s story in particular is a very sad case and is told in detail in the 75 minute interview that is another extra on here. Basically, SLEEPWALKER did extremely well at the Berlin film festival, but the mid-1980s was the direst time ever for British film production in general and British exploitation cinema in particular. Despite being well received, Logan couldn’t get his film shown in the UK, and the experience caused him to turn to documentary film-making. Giesler’s THE INSOMNIAC did well enough that he put together a full-length horror feature idea call ISOBEL, to be filmed in Scottish castles and with a strong folk-horror feel to it. Financing fell through and Giesler went back to documentary film-making.
The disc is rounded out with a couple of Saxon Logan’s short films - STEPPING OUT is a very short piece that originally accompanied Polanski’s THE TENANT in UK cinemas, and WORKING SURFACE is a strange little slice of the screenwriter’s life, featuring actors from SLEEPWALKER.
Presentation-wise SLEEPWALKER is rather grainy, even on the Blu-ray transfer, but the film is so rare that apparently only one print of it survives and so we should be grateful we have it at all. THE INSOMNIAC looks rather better, and the Blu-ray benefits from much of the film having been shot in bright sunshine.
Overall, the BFI Flipside’s SLEEPWALKER package is an excellent presentation of two very obscure and strange films, both of which deserve to be better known. Reminiscent of the works of both Aickman and Ayckbourn and filmed with flare and panache, this set is well worth tracking down for fans of weird and stylish British cinema.