Director: Saxon Logan
Cast: Bill Douglas, Fulton Mackay, Michael Medwin, Joanna David, Heather Page, Raymond Huntley
Length: 50 min + extras
Rating: BBFC: 15
Disks: 2 (1 BD, 1 DVD)
Label: BFI Flipside
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English: LPCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Long-lost horror film SLEEPWALKER released by BFI Flipside
After almost 30 years, Saxon Logan’s Sleepwalker—a peculiar yet stylish hybrid of horror and social satire—is being presented in a home entertainment format for the very first time, seeing a Blu-ray and DVD release on BFI Flipside—the British Film Institute’s alternative cinema label.
Logan, a BBC documentary filmmaker and protégé of pantheon director Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life, If…., O Lucky Man) seemed to be well on his way to success in commercial cinema on the strength of Sleepwalker‘s enthusiastic accolades at the Berlin Film Festival. It is deeply ironic that the Thatcher government’s jingoistic pro-business policies critiqued so effectively in Sleepwalker led to the 51-minute featurette’s rejection by British film distributors as well as termination of a government subsidy to theater owners to showcase short British films before main attractions—the only possible way that Sleepwalker would have received any theatrical exposure in Britain in 1984. The last 20 minutes of the supplemental interview are especially powerful when Logan discusses Sleepwalker, getting visibly emotional about having his once-discarded labor of love rediscovered again.Sleepwalker languished in obscurity for 14 years until film writer Kim Newman praised it in Ten Years of Terror, a comprehensive guide to modern British horror movies. (Newman recalled seeing Sleepwalker at a screening for the press in 1985). Newman’s story generated interest in Sleepwalker, which was then championed by film writers Darrell Buxton and Steve Langton. Horror completists were finally able to see the legendary (some thought mythical) Sleepwalker at various screenings across the United Kingdom.
So completely did Sleepwalker disappear from public view that many film buffs thought the film was fictitious. One film historian asked if there could actually be a person with the colorful name of “Saxon Logan.” How does a film that stars prominent Scottish actor-director Bill Douglas (Comrades, My Way Home) and well-known English character actress Joanna David vanish so completely from the public eye?Well, now we know that Sleepwalker really exists and is not a figment of Kim Newman’s trivia-cluttered imagination. The BFI Flipside edition presents Sleepwalker in a splendid high-definition transfer, (which has the look of genuine film—grain and all), said to be remastered from the only surviving print (locked away in Logan’s house for decades), and it looks very good given the low budget and often dark shooting conditions. Though Sleepwalker arrives 30 years too late to propel Logan into the cinematic mainstream, it’s gratifying to know that this short feature is now getting the showing it so richly deserved back in the day.
Sleepwalker begins with a slow pan of a seemingly abandoned house in a driving rainstorm. When wealthy yuppie couple Richard and Angela Paradise (Nickolas Grace and Joanna David) visit brother-and-sister Alex and Marion Britain (Bill Douglas and Heather Page) at Albion, their run-down family estate, the diverging social and moral attitudes create uneasy tensions, especially between boorish Thatcherite Richard and committed socialist Alex. (Refreshingly, both ends of the political spectrum are almost equally held up to ridicule.) A distressing evening of drunken outbursts and sexual rivalry turns bloody as guests and host fall victim to a deranged attacker who commits gruesome murders while sleepwalking. (Indeed, Sleepwalker could pass for a scarier version of Carnage, Roman Polanski’s 2011 black comedy of social mores.)Does Sleepwalker qualify as a genuine horror film? I believe it does, even though Saxon Logan steers away from labeling it as such and describes it as having “only a tiny bit of gore.” True: the bloodletting—although savagely convincing—is confined to the final 10 minutes, after 41 minutes of class warfare. However, Sleepwalker has the look and feel of a horror movie from beginning to end. In the BFI Flipside release’s 72-minute special feature, O Lucky Man: Saxon Logan in Conversation, the director cites several horror influences, including Hammer, James Whale’s The Old Dark House and German Expressionism. Most of the action takes place at a remote and decaying Victorian cottage during a thunder-and-lightning storm. Before the macabre finale, there are references to comas, rude awakenings, murders committed by sleepwalkers, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar [about a mesmerist who puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of death], as well as terrified demands for a character to “wake up!”
Several images of troubled sleep and somnambulistic or trance-like behavior recall Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Other images of syringes, black gloves, and shards of broken glass on food seem to forecast the horror to come, while the viewer is deceived into thinking a man manically chopping wood with an axe is about to turn into a psycho killer. Revelations of a murderer’s identity turn out to be dream sequences. These disquieting images flirt with the horrific, adding to a sense of mounting dread until the final bloodbath and twist ending.Among the other special features offered by BFI Flipside are The Insomniac (Rodney Giesler’s 1971 featurette, in which a man experiences a nighttime world that is part foreboding nightmare, part sexual fantasy ); Stepping Out (Saxon Logan’s 1977 short subject, about a couple’s untraditional early-morning preparation-for-work ritual; this 10-minute experimental film originally supported Roman Polanski’s The Tenant in UK cinemas); Working Surface: A Short Study (with Actors) in the ‘Ways’ of a Bourgeois Writer (Saxon Logan’s 1979 15-minute satire in which Bill Douglas plays a writer struggling with a script about the interior lives of two women—played by Joanna David and Heather Page; all three actors were so impressed by Logan’s talent that they agreed to work with him on Sleepwalker five years later).
Sleepwalker is another buried treasure unearthed by BFI Flipside and a reminder of the abundance of “secret cinema” that awaits discovery. I recommend Sleepwalker without hesitation to the horror connoisseur.