A once-lost, now beloved British short that is perhaps not quite the masterpiece that some would claim.
Not that long ago, the short British film Sleepwalker seemed doomed to wallow in obscurity forever, essentially a ‘lost’ – or at least buried – film that existed alongside a depressingly large number of low-budget British shorts and features from the 1970s and 1980s, ignored by distributors, exhibitors and critics alike. Unlike most, this film built a certain reputation in its absence and was eventually pulled out of obscurity at the end of the 1990s for a handful of special screenings, which allowed its legend to grow further, and eventually it became one of a handful of theatrical shorts to appear as part of the BFI’s Flipside series to the gushing approval of critics, many of whom quickly went from never having heard of it to becoming experts in its history. It’s quite a turnaround.
Of course, given the gushing praise heaped on the film by the handful of people to have previously seen it and those who saw it for the first time on Blu-ray and didn’t want to be left out of its new fan base, there was always the chance – historically speaking, quite a significant chance – that Sleepwalker would turn out to be a disappointing dud that had been bigger up on the basis of vague memory and a determination not to admit to being wrong. You know the sort of thing. Luckily, it’s most definitely not that, even if the film perhaps inevitably doesn’t quite live up to its reputation. Because the – ahem – flipside of bigging up a ‘lost’ movie as a masterpiece is that you are giving it a prior reputation that it can’t match, and that has often seen a backlash against perfectly decent films that could never be as good as people have brought themselves to believe.
Sleepwalker is not an easy film to enjoy. By which I mean, it’s easy to see why the film baffled distributors back in 1984. At 50 minutes, it’s a little too long to work as a short but too short to pass as a feature (much like The Orchard End Murder, another last-gasp supporting film from the same time period) and it emerged just as the financial incentives to play British-made supporting features were withdrawn by the Thatcher government. By the time this film was made, there was little reason for it to exist and few places for it to be shown. What’s more, the film’s storyline is a weird hybrid of the sort of vaguely leftist political satire/polemic that British cinema was collapsing into at the time with the then thoroughly unfashionable horror film. Watching the movie now, it makes perfect sense why it failed to find a release at the time. Too long to play support at a time when double bills were effectively over, too chin-strokingly weird for audiences to sit through while waiting for the main feature in any case and appearing at a time when films like this were not even appearing on TV – just how would you market something like this?
The first act of Sleepwalker is essentially a battle of political ideals and personal bitterness between the four unappealing lead characters. Alex (Bill Douglas) and Marion (Heather Page) are the Britain siblings, living in a run-down cottage named Albion (and no, the symbolism of this film isn’t very subtle), who play host to wealthy couple Richard and Angela Paradise (Joanna David and Nickolas Grace). You wonder just why they are hanging out together, frankly, but this is hardly the first film to create unlikely friendships just to form conflict. Over a meal at a restaurant, the ideological differences between them are exposed – Alex is a middle-class socialist, the embodiment of Old Labour (these days, you imagine he’d be a ferocious and self-righteous Tweeter) while Richard is an ardent Thatcherite, arrogant, selfish and bigoted (in case audiences don’t pick up on this, he tells an outrageously offensive homophobic joke just to hammer the point home). As for the women, Marion is bitter and angry, Angela is meek and compliant (she doesn’t even complain when Richard starts blatantly feeling Marion up). None of them seem particularly pleasant and that probably didn’t help in the film’s search for a supporting slot to occupy. Bad enough that audiences had to sit through films that they were uninterested in while waiting for the movie that they’d paid good money to see; to force them to spend nearly an hour watching awful stereotypes battling it out might’ve been beyond the pale even for British film distributors to force on them.
So Sleepwalker at this stage is very much a sledgehammer metaphor for the state of the nation in 1984 – the rise of the greedy Tory, the decline of the left, the compliance of the middle class and Britannia yearning after past glories. On their return to the cottage, the bickering and point-scoring continues until everyone retires to bed. But we’ve been told earlier that Alex is a chronic sleepwalker who has been known to be violent while in a sonambulistic state. Well, of course we’re told this. Foreshadowing and all that. And so the scene is set for the film to shift gears, as increasingly strange and violent dreams bleed over into reality, a reality that involves disembowelling, axe murders and more.
While the first half of the film sticks mainly to a social realism style – albeit one deliberately and some might argue ludicrously exaggerated – the second half becomes increasingly stylised, with Argento-inspired lighting and shock horror sequences taking the film far beyond where it began. It maintains a certain ambiguity though – you won’t really know what is real and what isn’t, and who the killer really is.
I’m aware that my description of the film so far is not all that complimentary and you might reasonably think that I didn’t like the film. But that’s not the case. Yes, it labours the point – but once it gets beyond all that, there is a lot to admire here. Director Saxon Logan – what a fine name! – thankfully avoids bashing you over the head with too much of a message and while his film certainly reflects the decline of Britain, it ultimately avoids the relentless political tup-thumping that so dominated UK film production at the time. Much like his mentor Lindsay Anderson did in Britannia Hospital a few years earlier, Logan shows that Britain’s mess is a result of both left and right, their personal dogmas and failures all playing their part. No one really gets to claim the moral high ground. Of course, his Tory is especially venal, perhaps showing Logan’s left-wing leanings, but that’s fair enough – that Grace resembles a younger Norman Tebbit shows how accurate that portrayal was.
I’m not entirely sure that Sleepwalker is the masterpiece that it has been made out to be, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting and unusual British films of the era. Given the godawful British-made stuff that did get a cinema release in the mid-Eighties, it does feel a shame that the film sat unseen for so long.
The BFI Blu-ray comes with several additional short films as extra and the best of the bunch is The Insomniac, a 45-minute 1971 film by Rodney Giesler, included, presumably, because of the sleep connection. Starring the instantly recognisable Morris Perry, it’s a trippy fantasy with the unnamed central character apparently unable to sleep, leaving his bedroom to find himself in a large, sunny garden. The weird dream state that the film follows is impressively off-centre in its approach – it becomes clear that he’s out at night, even though it seems to be daylight, and the people he meets are increasingly odd and sinister. Finding himself at a party, he escapes with the beautiful and mysterious Valerie Van Ost, pursued by other guests. The pair make love in a lake before the man is suddenly pulled back to reality.
I’d go as far as to say that The Insomniac is rather better than the film it is playing support to. It’s unlike anything else out there, looks gorgeous and has a sense of the surreal that sometimes brings to mind The Prisoner. It also has some surprising male frontal nudity (something very rare at the time) and the very sexy Van Ost (best known for The Satanic Rites of Dracula and a typically underused bit of totty in several early Seventies TV shows and movies) in a rare lead role. Sleepwalker might arguably be the more important rediscovery, but this movie – also unseen for decades – is perhaps more entertaining. Well worth seeking out.
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