Original Air Date: December 10th, 1982
Weaver became an iconic presence in TV movies when he starred in the Spielberg classic Duel (1971) but he was always that kind of cool - He was the kind of class act that made watching television so much fun. Weaver ran the gamut on the small screen playing everything from a protective husband/father defending his clan against a gang of bikers to a cokehead real estate agent! He was also so unabashedly unpretentious, I always found him to be a totally contagious addition to whatever film or series he graced. Whether he was a big city cowboy or put-upon dad, he was just so easy to watch.
In 1982 he did another awesome turn in the oft-forgotten ghostly Don’t Go to Sleep. I find that fans of made for television movies adore this film, and it certainly transcends the medium, so I find it odd that it never became a part of the casual viewer lexicon like Trilogy of Terror or the other Don’t movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Maybe it fell through the cracks because it came out after the made for television horror rage, but it definitely deserves to be on the list of the best small screen genre films of that era, and ought to be considered a love letter to a dying breed.
Weaver plays Phillip, a father who is moving his two kids (Robin Ignico & Oliver Robins), wife Laura (Valerie Harper) and mother-in-law Bernice (Ruth Gordon) to a new home. At the outset things seem fairly normal until they arrive (it might be worthwhile to note the address contains the numbers 666). We find out that they have lost a daughter named Jennifer, who was killed in a horrible car accident. Each family member carries some guilt over the death, but no one is truly willing to either discuss it or look deep enough into their feelings to free themselves. Then one night Jennifer (Kristin Cumming) appears in front of her little sister Mary (Ignico) and sinister things start happening around the house. Jennifer is one ticked off ghost, and is out for blood.
Like all good ghost stories, Sleep has a timeless quality to it and has aged very well, still playing as straight horror even now. Maybe it’s because it’s a wonderfully shot tale about the universal issues of loss and repressed guilt and that it hits every horror beat perfectly. But the shocks, of which there are plenty, wouldn’t have worked so much if the family dynamic wasn't so dead on (no pun intended!). Dysfunctional families have always existed in film, but rarely lived on television (at this point in time). After the end of The Brady Bunch in the early 70s, TVMs and shows definitely took a turn to the more realistic, showcasing the difficulties in keeping the unit together and Sleep really capitalizes on that struggle. Harper and Weaver are fantastic as the beleaguered, sorrow-filled parents placing blame for their child’s death on themselves and on each other. Ruth Gordon keeps things quirky, as per her usual fashion, but also elicits sympathy and of course, gives grief wherever she can.
And those death scenes! I prefer not to give too much away, but look out for a lizard, a pizza cutter and a radio (not all in the same scene!) which become awesome potential murder tools.
Sleep is a key film in the sub-genre of small screen horrors. Following the more well known cult classics like the above-referenced Dark, Sleep benefits from a pulls-no-punches attitude and sequences of straight up ghastly terror, especially during the last third.
Produced by Aaron Spelling, it would be a treat to see something like The Aaron Spelling Collection released on DVD. He had his hand in many a made for television horror film (including Satan's School for Girls, Home for the Holidays & Taste of Evil to name but a few), several of which are worth a revisit and deserve to be more than a mere footnote in Spelling’s jiggle filled filmography.
Read more reviews at:
Read an interview with Oliver Robins at Icons of Fright!