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Sleepwalker

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1984
Studio: 
BFI
Genre: 
Horror
Format: 
Dual Format BD/DVD
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.85:1
Directed by: 
Saxon Logan
Cast: 
Joanna David
Nickolas Grace
Heather Page
Bill Douglas
Fulton Mackay
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4

The BFI’s Flipside Collection takes a somnolent stroll along avenues of the past once forgotten and barely dreamt of this month, as its latest release unearths and brings together on Blu-ray two ultra-obscure second features from the British Film Industry’s most neglected corners, both linked by the theme of dreaming and sleepwalking. In fact, so obscure was Saxon Logan’s weird and wonderful “Sleepwalker” -- which has justly been made the main selling point of this dual-disc collection -- once considered to be, that some researchers in the field of cult film even doubted it had ever existed at all, and only critic Kim Newman’s dim recollection of having once attended an early press screening for the movie in 1984, helped keep it’s uncertain memory alive until Logan himself was informed of his supposed  non-existence via the internet and was able to get in touch from his home in Cape Town with the relevant parties to reveal that, not only did he and his film actually exist, but that he was in fact still in possession of the only known surviving print! … Up until that moment, the film might just as well have been some feverish dream in the mind of a cult movie fan.

The story of how this intriguing low budget oddity -- with a running time of barely 50 minutes -- came to be made at all, and why it almost immediately completely vanished without ever receiving proper distribution, despite widespread acclaim in Europe after its triumphant debut at the Berlin Film Festival, is told by a teary eyed Logan on a fascinating 75 minute career retrospective interview which accompanies the film on the disc -- along with the two rare shorts he made as a fledgling young director, and a wonderful thematically relevant but unrelated film by Rodney Giesler (it’s almost as obscure a piece of work, from the days of quota-filling second feature film-making in the 1970s), entitled  “The Insomniac”.

Logan grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was inspired by the work of director Lindsay Anderson after seeing his radical 1968 film about a public school rebellion, “If …”. He became a protégé and even a close friend of the former leading exponent of the Free Cinema movement after moving to Britain, where his attempts to find work in the industry met with indifference until Anderson kindly helped him secure a job at the Royal Court Theatre. Saxon was able to acquire what must have been invaluable experience in almost every area of filmmaking after he was given the chance to work in a variety of departments during the pre-production, filming and post-production stages of the making of Anderson’s “O Lucky Man!” He became an editing assistant at the BBC where, in 1977, he was eventually afforded the chance to make his own 11 minute film short, which he managed to shoot in just one day on left over film (‘short ends’) from the 16 mm reels used by the BBC’s news department. The result, which is included on this release, was “Stepping Out” – a simple tale of two young people, played by Elisabeth Bawn and James Biddicombe, rising in the morning and getting themselves ready to leave their flat and face the day ahead. Saxon’s first efforts were judged worthy enough to receive a regional release by the BFI, accompanying Roman Polanski’s “The Tennant” as a support feature, where it served as apposite introduction to that film’s surreal examination of madness and gender confusion with a much more positive spin on issues of gender identity, offering a normalising venue for what is an unusually (for the time) casual depiction of cross-dressing in this context, accompanied by a melodic piano score from Richard Humphries.  A simple but striking idea, executed with expertise on a very limited budget and tight schedule, “Stepping Out” effortlessly tapped into the zeitgeist of the times which had recently been instigated by rock icons such as Marc Bolan and David Bowie, although all Logan really had to do was convey the life-style of his two performers as accurately as he could, since both already belonged to a real life metropolitan subculture of drag acts and underground cabaret performance.       

In order to get the chance to shoot his next film, Logan enrolled on the two week directors’ course run by the BBC, knowing that at the end of a fortnight of lectures each student was to be given the chance to make a short film of their own, that would then be judged by an independent panel. While other students turned in three minute vignettes of little consequence, Logan’s effort was unbelievably ambitious: a complex fifteen minute piece entitled “Working Surface: A Short Study (with Actors) in ‘the Ways of a Bourgeois Writer’” which was shot and edited in just two days. Logan enlisted the services of an actor friend, Joanna David, who introduced him to her colleague and best friend, actress Heather Page. The Scottish film director Bill Douglas completed the trio of performers assembled for what turned out to be a humorous skewering of the pretentions of a certain type of filmmaker and dramatist, then much in prevalence, who presumed to be able to see into the soul of women and articulate their experiences on film. In a work that lays bare the artifices of performance conventions and the stock devices resorted to by hack writers, Logan alternates between the attempts of Douglas’s chain-smoking author, hunched over his manual typewriter in a cluttered study as he bangs out failed draft after failed draft of a scene that takes place between two women in a tastefully furnished drawing room, and the two actresses who act out the various iterations of that scene in which the writer’s own erotic concerns seem to be fuelling the direction each version ends up taking.

Douglas accompanied Logan while he worked frantically to edit the film in just 36 hours to meet the strict deadline set by the course rules, and the result is a playful, inventive piece of work highly influenced by the films of Alain Resnais -- especially in the manner in which it manipulates perceptions of time and works with multiple levels of reality to present a panoply of possible interpretations. Although it was intended only as a training film, it set the tone for the next stage in Logan’s attempt to establish himself as an auteurist filmmaker -- his 1984 film “Sleepwalker”.

Logan had established a tight working relationship with the three performers involved in the making of “Working Surface” during time sent meticulously rehearsing and developing the script with them so as to be thoroughly prepared in advance of the one day shoot. All three returned for “Sleepwalker”, as did screenwriter Michael Keenan, who brought an acute political consciousness to a work that was intended to be screened as a second feature, alongside a full length picture in cinema chains, back in the days when the double feature experience was still a regular part of the cinema-going process. “Sleepwalker” makes use of equally avant-garde ideas about performance and narrative manipulation; but this time Logan and Keenan are exploring the tropes and conventions of horror cinema and using them as the allegorical framework on which they hang a typically angry response to the changes then being wrought upon the country by the monetarist polices of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Logan had grown up a fan of Hammer Horror and the blood-splattered gialli of Mario Bava and Dario Argento during his youth in Rhodesia, and there is no mistaking those influences at work in this unusual, nightmarish black comedy that is equal parts social satire and grand-guignol. The juxtaposition evidently didn’t play well in the UK at the time -- though  the film evidently made enough of an impression on Kim Newman during his stint as film reviewer for City Limits for it to still be remembered by him  a good thirty-years or so later.

However, Logan simply couldn’t get anyone to distribute “Sleepwalker” at the time and the film fell by the wayside when (fittingly enough) the cinema subsidies then keeping many small production companies afloat, were scrapped by Maggie’s Conservative Government (oh, the irony!), and with it went any prospect of Logan continuing as a director of features. He went on to become a respected documentary-maker, and only with this BFI release, made possible because Logan hung onto a single 35 mm print of the film, are we able to re-discover a fascinating lost pearl from British horror’s dustiest, most neglected corner and get an inkling of what could have been had Logan been allowed to pursue such avenues further.

It’s a film that definitely fell between the cracks of two polarised schools of critical opinion dominant in Britain back then: for one thing, it’s most defiantly an ‘art house’ picture, in that it takes an elliptical narrative approach and features non-realistic, stylised performances with characters that are rendered as archetypal representatives of a political metaphor rather than as ‘real’ people. That’s not the kind of thing that was ever going to appeal to the mainstream critics (or most horror fans) of the day, who would doubtless have labelled it pejoratively as being ’pretentious’ (had they ever got to see it, that is). On the other hand, there had always been a strong air of  critical disdain among ‘serious’ critics for the horror genre in general, which was still considered a trashy populist option unworthy of serious filmmakers, except perhaps as a means of first getting started in the industry. This view was especially prominent among precisely those critics who might have been more willing to indulge an arty anti-Thatcherite political fable in any other context.

Looking back now, we can see quite clearly that in deploying the gothic atmospheres of a classic MR James BBC adaptation with the intense thrills and spills of a contemporary slasher flick, and setting them alongside polemical, political and satirical content, Logan and Keenan ended up creating a particularly strange, unique, dreamlike work which, with the benefit of hindsight, snuggles up neatly amongst a host of international cult art house horror items from the 1980s that did manage to find distribution, such as Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” and Alejandro Jodorowsky's “Santa Sangre”. The internet having made it much easier for specialist films such as these to find a select viewership willing and eager to explore strange new visions and offbeat ideas means “Sleepwalker” probably now has a great chance of finding a readymade audience that will lap up the BFI’s new release -- particularly seeing as it’s one of the few remaining films of its type left from the period that hardly anybody has seen before … unless there are any other gems out there, still lurking in some forgotten filmmaker’s attic. Come to think of it, there almost certainly are!

The film begins by establishing an eerie sense of unease and disquiet from the off, persistently cutting between the closed eyes of a dreaming woman, obviously in a disturbed REM state of sleep, and images of autumnal English countryside and the slow approach to an old, dilapidated-looking country house, which we take to be the subject of the woman’s dreaming as the imagery is accompanied by the claustrophobic sound of her laboured breathing, mixing with the natural sounds of birdsong one would more likely expect to encounter amid such idyllic rural scenery. Doom-laden bass chords and discordant synths from composer Phil Sawyer add an air of dread and menace to the sequence as the dream imagery starts to incorporate violent scenes of moonlight-blue tinted struggle, which just might prove to be prophetic. The feeling of strangeness is enhanced when we see that the woman was in fact sleeping inside the very same house that has troubled her dreams so; and that a dishevelled middle-aged man is administering a drug to her with a disposable hypodermic while she’s still only semi-awake -- a scenario that encourages associations with gothic stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar” (which is explicitly referenced later in dialogue), although he appears to be injecting her with insulin.

The couple, brother and sister Alex (Bill Douglas) and Marion Britain (Heather Page), have inherited the house, we later learn, from a relative and are planning on renovating it, though at the moment it appears to be in a parlous state of disrepair, with the fragile outside guttering coming disastrously loose in the middle of a sudden storm. Inside, faded Victorian bric-a-brac abounds: ornaments, old photographs, paintings and furnishings are dumped side-by-side with unsightly packing crates and shelves of battered books, all such items in turn uncomfortably mixed with examples of modernity (circa 1984) such as remote control-adjusted Hi-Fi systems, TV sets and a humming word processor that now look more outmoded than the unsettling Victorian dolls’ house that takes up a whole corner of the makeshift living room. The use of the name Britain is no accident here, as is soon made clear when we’re also given to note that the house is called ‘Albion’ – an early name for the British Isles. The crumbling antiquated dwelling with its fallen ‘For Sale’ sign, smashed windows, faltering electrical supply and collapsing masonry is a less-than-flattering metaphor which stands for the state of the country itself; while its two odd inhabitants -- a faded socialist book translator (Alex) and an resentful would-be upwardly mobile reader for a publishing firm (Marion) live in a state of perpetual hostility and tension, bound by repressed psychological imbalances and unspoken-of childhood traumas.

 This metaphor in which the country is considered as being like a house, is an elaboration on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” -- in which a brother and sister, suffering respectively from sensitive nerves and chronic narcolepsy, reside in a house that becomes the concrete embodiment of both their own and their ancestral family’s, inherent corruption. When Marion invites a friend she met in hospital to come and visit them for a meal at the country home (unelaborated upon physical, as well as psychological, illness mars both couples’ unhappy relationships), elements of James Whales’ “The Old Dark House” add to the extreme Gothic ambiance of the setting -- with driving rain and a lightning storm putting paid to Marion’s plan of having an enjoyable gathering out of doors in the sun. Angelia (Joanna David) and Richard (Nickolas Grace) instead arrive to find a gloomy pile that’s shrouded in darkness because of a power cut, and discover that the promised meal has been ruined after a kitchen window exploded during the storm, scattering shards of glass all over the prepared food!

Angelia and Richard represent various aspects of Toryism: Angelia is the more genteel, Harold MacMillan-like, inward-looking ‘One Nation’ brand of yesteryear (‘I often think I’d like to have been born in Victorian times,’ she confides when she catches sight of the Britains’ life-like dolls’ house) while Richard (in a fantastically vicious performance by Grace) is possibly the most obnoxious exemplar of crude Thatcherite ‘values’ with its market dogma of dog eat dog, ever conceived for the screen: an sardonic, cut-throat ‘entrepreneur’ and self-styled ‘wealth creator’ in the video sales industry who delights in mass unemployment (‘it sucks the poison out of the system … if you can’t get a job, go to Hell!’) and third world sweatshops, while cracking pointedly offencive jokes at the expense of the genial gay couple (a small but enjoyable turn from Fulton Mackay and Michael Medwin)  who own and run the small restaurant the quartet is forced to dine at after the earlier disaster with the spoilt dinner at the house (‘what does G.A.Y. stand for? … Got AIDS Yet!’). The social awkwardness evident between the four central characters from the moment Alex and Marion first encounter Angelia and Richard at the door of their crumbling inheritance forms the basis for most of what then transpires during the middle section of the film, seemingly taking the focus away from the horror and thriller genres suggested by the opening act (and by the pastiche of “The Old Dark House” contained in the initial scenes between the couple inside the darkened rooms of the storm-lashed residence), and into the realm of polemical social satire -- with the clash between the decrepit, used up  corduroy-and-tweed romantic socialism of Alex and the boorish, crass, sneering and be-suited Thatcherite cynicism suggested by Richard’s sardonic discourse, becoming central to the social and class-based dynamics of the piece. Some of this has aged rather badly, merely becomes of the changing context of the times: microwave ovens being used as a symbol of a disposable, ‘me first’ NOW culture, is a discourse that falls flat nowadays since they’ve become ubiquitous everyday objects that pretty much everyone possesses, rather than the novelty they were in the early-eighties. Similarly a sequence involving Angelia trying to get to grips with a TV remote control and peering at the object –  in 1984 they were the size of house bricks! – as though it were from outer-space, just seems nostalgically quaint to modern eyes.

However, the extremism expressed in Richard’s profit-is-all-that-matters philosophy (which was probably largely written as a Dickensian caricature for effect at the time) doesn’t seem all that outlandish a view in the light of today’s obscene business bonus culture. And while Alex and Richard are at loggerheads, back at the old house Alex’s sister Marion seems to think nothing of literally cosying up to the uber-capitalist (in what could be seen as an allegorical prediction of the rise of New Labour) -- drunkenly petting him to some middle-of-the-road reggae in front of the uppity Angelia after the latter stumbles upon a porn video left running on the Britains’ VHS deck while playing about with their TV remote. The fact that brother and sister, Alex and Marion, apparently like nothing better of an evening than settling down to watch some soft porn together, only constitutes the beginnings of the perversity and strangeness to come once the two couples turn in for the night in the dilapidated house of Albion, though: with all this repressed conflict and trauma swimming about the collective subconscious of the group, it’s only to be expected that the sleepover soon turns into a giddy riot of somnambulating psycho-sexual turmoil – a surreal potpourri of nightmare within nightmare where Buñuelian eroticism meets Bava-esque bloodbath, as all four sleepers one by one become both the victims and the perpetrators in each-others’ troubled nocturnal imaginings. The last ten minutes of the piece are where Logan indulges his love of the horror classics and of the slasher body-count formula without shame, while lighting cameraman Nicholas Beeks-Sanders bathes the succession of bloody murder scenes which follow in icy, Suspira-like, moonlight blue gels, sharply edited by Michael Crozier. “Sleepwalker” is an oddity for sure but its uneven mixture of state of the nation, ‘Play for Today’ styled satire and Grind House excess  saturated in English Gothic atmosphere makes it more rather than less appealing after its unexpected recent rediscovery: it’s an eighties period piece unlike any other, that concludes with an extended set-piece that’s built knowingly on slasher clichés  but which remains profoundly eerie and unsettling -- a sort of “Abigail’s Party” spliced with “Friday the 13th”

The cleaned up print used here looks very nice, while still retaining signs of the film’s age, made visible in the grain structure of some of the darker sequences. The mono audio is also strongly represented and the film has been presented in HD in its original 1.85: 1 aspect ratio. As well as including all three of Logan’s films in newly restored and cleaned up prints, both the Blu-ray and the DVD in this dual format collection include an extensive 75 minute interview with the director: “O Lucky Man: Saxon Logan in Conversation” has been produced by the British Film Institute. In it the director talks in detail about the beginnings of his career and his friendship with Lindsay Anderson and Bill Douglas, both of whom helped and inspired him in his earliest efforts. He talks about the making of “Sleepwalker” on a tight budget and a five day shooting schedule. The film was the subject of plenty of initial luck during his battle to get it made, with finances and a suitable house location in Hampshire both falling into Logan’s lap quite quickly after production began; but it later met with extreme bad luck after falling victim to indifference and hostility from a delegation from the Rank Organisation who had the power to provide it with theatrical distribution. It ended up in limbo despite previous acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival, and Logan’s career took a quite different direction from what it could have had the film been given the chance of an audience at the time. Most moving is Logan’s emotional account of the sudden rediscovery of his work by British fans of cult film, led by Kim Newman’s disputed memories of having once seen it. The director actually chokes up and can barely continue at one point, when he reflects on the film’s resurgence and the prospect of it actually getting released for home viewing for the first time.

To compliment this dream-and-sleepwalking-themed cult item, the BFI have unearthed another obscure gem on the same subject, and it turns out to be a real treasure of a find. While Saxon Logan turned to documentary making after his failure to launch a career as a features director, the strange, beguiling dream fantasy of “The Insomniac” was the product of a complete digression by its director and writer Rodney Giesler -- whose previous and subsequent career revolved around documentaries and training films he made for the likes of the National Coal Board and British Transport.

Shot in 1971 as a second feature with a running time of 45 minutes, and photographed by the lighting cameraman used by Nicolas Roeg on “Walkabout”, Tony Richmond, the film is an exquisite dreamlike fable with the visual style of an mid-sixties colour episode of “The Avengers” but the melancholic yet playful nostalgic wistfulness of a Dennis Potter play -- shot using 35mm short ends obtained by Richmond during his previous project: shooting “Sympathy for the Devil” for Jean-Luc Godard. Rumple-faced Morris Perry (who went from this to film the “Doctor Who” adventure “Colony in Space”) is perfectly cast as the nameless hero of a rich sun-dappled fantasy in which a nameless middle-aged man, trapped in a joyless nine-to-five grind and living with his small family in a typical mid-sixties tower block, idly dreams of escaping into a childhood dreamscape inspired by memory and children’s storybooks (poignantly, his own children, playing in a patch of ground outside the tower block, also imagine themselves inhabiting the same pastoral scene) – represented by a lush, summer garden under cloudless blue skies. When this imaginary view seems to become a reality – its light filtering through his curtains in the middle of the night to reveal sun-drenched horizons beyond – the man is able to escape his humdrum life for a short time and recapture some of that elusive childhood feeling of endless carefree summer holidays once again, before grey 20th century reality reasserts itself.

The fantasy becomes a strange action adventure yarn when Perry encounters a beautiful woman (played by Carry On and Hammer Films starlet Valarie Van Ost) in his brightly coloured idyll, surrounded by strange, male tuxedoed partygoers in mirrored shades who insist on enforcing participation in their sophisticated after dinner soiree. This sort of social pressure is precisely the sort of thing that makes our hero so despondent in everyday life and so he manages to persuade the woman to remove her shades and enjoy the tranquil delights of an idealised English summer afternoon with him – which turn out to involve some nude frolicking in a lake and a pleasant stroll in some sun-dappled woods (after they’ve evaded their disgruntled party-going pursuers). Naturally, it all ends badly with the spell broken and a cruel coda for the dreaming hero when he’s brought back to reality with a bump.

This beautifully realised vignette makes an excellent fantastical accompaniment to Logan’s film, and the disc allows you to programme them as a double feature; or, alternatively you can have all three of Logan’s films play back to back. Like the other films in the set “The Insomniac” has been restored and digitally scanned at 2K resolution; it probably looks the best out of the films here. A BFI booklet, with knowledgeable writing on each of the films, also comes with the set, including pieces by the manager of the BFI’s Filmographic Unit Julian Grainger (on “Sleepwalker”), the curator of the BFI National Archive Vic Pratt (on “The Insomniac”), web producer for the BFI Alex Davidson (on “Stepping Out”) and head of video publishing at the BFI Sam Dunn (on “Working Surface”). Full cast lists and production credits for the films involved are also included.

This marks another strong release on the Flipside label and one of the most intriguing yet -- prompting thoughts about what other strange, lost forgotten macabre delights might remain hidden away in film vaults and have yet to be brought to light. Recommended.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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