These days, it is so impossibly difficult to create an original slasher icon. With the success of films like the new Halloween and a long line of remakes/reboots of other legends waiting in the wings, there just isn’t a lot of room for new horror villains to stake their claim. But, if you go back in time, there are numerous characters that deserved a better chance than they got. One such character comes from the long-forgotten 1995 film, Sleepstalker…
…Directed by Turi Meyer (Candyman: Day of the Dead) and written by Meyer and Al Septien (Leprechaun 2), Sleepstalker is about a killer known as “The Sandman” (Michael Harris), who is finally caught by the cops while in the middle of slaughtering a family. Seventeen years later, The Sandman is finally put to death, but not before conducting a voodoo spell which allows him to come back as an evil entity made entirely of sand. However, in order to attain true power and continue walking the world, he must hunt down and kill the lone survivor from that night seventeen years ago, Griffin (Jay Underwood).
The above premise is a sandstorm of potential. In The Sandman, we have a character which is deeply disturbing through his very nature. Even before he becomes a supernatural being, The Sandman is a guy so far unhinged, that he actually believes he is the titular character of children’s fairytales, who has a mission to “put all the children to sleep” and silence their pain through the method of, what else, murder! As icing on the cake, he sings them a slow, eerie lullaby while sprinkling sand in their dead eyes. The method is effectively chilling, made more so through Harris’ unfathomably creepy performance as the Sandman. While Harris has appeared in other horror fare such as the Tales from the Crypt series, it’s amazing to me that this is his only starring role as a horror villain. Harris brings a quiet confidence to the role, hardly ever wavering in his emotion. In many ways he’s like a bad dream: a soothing though eerie voice, charming with his words, and eyes that say no matter what you do, he will get you. Harris truly makes the character his own. The Sandman has all the qualities of a great slasher villain: the look, a macabre MO, an intimidating personality, an interesting backstory, etc. You name it, he’s got it. It isn’t at all difficult to see Harris going on to play the character throughout multiple films.
In terms of horror villains, The Sandman is one that had every right to appear in more films, and it’s a shame he wasn’t given that opportunity. At this point in time in horror cinema, the character was a unique one, with characteristics reminiscent of various horror villains, yet without singularly reflecting any one of them. The Sandman has a connection to dreams, like Freddy. His words are intellectual and foreboding, like Pinhead. And he’s formed through evil elements of voodoo, like Chucky. Being made of sand, there is no obvious way to stop him. Because of this, the characters are never really safe either, as The Sandman can break himself down into a million sand particles, allowing him to pour through keyholes, vents, etc. He’s also able to mold and transform himself, allowing for a wide variety of kills to keep audiences entertained. Keep in mind too, this was before the 1999 remake of The Mummy, so the idea of a villain travelling as sand was still highly inventive at the time, (and I wouldn’t be surprised if elements of The Mummy were actually lifted from this film). Meyer and Septien created a villain that SHOULD have impressed horror fans upon release. But, as it usually goes, the film gods got in the way.
For one, Sleepstalker has the feel of a heavily edited made for TV 90’s movie. It wasn’t made for TV, but whether budgetary or choices made by Meyer, the film is surprisingly underwhelming for having such a great concept. Horrible 90s CGI aside, the sand effects are done well (it’s just simple editing, where you pour sand through a vent and then play it in reverse to make it look like the sand is traveling up INTO said vent), but the gore effects leave a lot to be desired. That’s because there aren’t any. That’s not dictated by the script either. The Sandman stabs, tears, and somehow rips the flesh off of his victims with little sand tornadoes, yet the audience is never given the satisfaction of actually seeing any of it. Most of the above is handled off screen. Like I always say, gore does not a good horror film make, (just look at the original Halloween), but by the mid-90s, the audience expects a little something from a slasher film. You can’t have a full decade of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and the like, without at least having a little fun with your effects. The constant cutting away from more gruesome imagery and mistimed editing gives the film that low-quality, watered down feeling that no horror film ever wants to be labeled with.
While budget restrictions are the most likely culprit for this, I get the feeling that Meyer is apprehensive in going full-blown slasher film with the concept. Meyer and cinematographer Michael G. Wojciechowski have a keen eye, inserting an array of inspired shots that are truly works of art. The problem with Sleepstalker, though, is that it can at times come off as a B-horror movie trying to be an A “thriller”. The heavy drama revolving around Griffin’s life and the dark past of The Sandman take primary focus, while the over-the-top violence called for by the script is watered down and made secondary. And let’s be clear, this is purely and simply a B-horror film. If the concept doesn’t say it already, Meyer and Septien make it pretty clear with random elements like the Sandman being unable to step into sunlight because evil I guess, or a voodoo priest (Michael D. Roberts) who spends most of his screen time talking to himself in some strange throne room, gifting the audience with all the exposition we need to keep us updated on what’s going on. Meyer comes off to me as a true auteur, who, along with Septien, knew they had something special and wanted to make the film more than it was, but simply didn’t have the means to do it, and so the attempt falls flat.
And the film is certainly different in the realm of horror slashers. The Sandman is an intriguing villain, but Meyer and Septien add one other element to the film that’s about as rare in slashers as it is to find an honest politician, and that is “the final boy”. Scrounge around through the pantheon of slasher films, and you’ll come across multiple legendary horror queens such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Heather Langenkamp, Neve Campbell, and so many others, but there are very few with a male lead. Only two come to mind right away: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, and the first three Child’s Play films. Unlike Jesse and Andy though, no one knows who the hell Griffin is, and they probably never will. Underwood, like many final girls before him, has much of the same traits. He’s charming, relatable, and mostly defenseless until he begins to understand the evil and decides to take a stand. Unlike the above-mentioned though, Griffin has a strong connection to the horror which hunts him, because he is not some random victim who happens to catch the eye of the Sandman. He is someone who escaped The Sandman over a decade ago. Being unable to escape our fate is a strong theme in the film, one which the Sandman believes deeply in as well, and it makes Griffin someone worth rooting for, because he has done so much to overcome the past, that it’s actually painful to watch it catch up to him.
What I’m trying to say here, is that Sleepstalker is by no means a perfect movie. It isn’t even very good. BUT, it has all of the elements necessary for it to be a memorable slasher, and deserves a second chance with a remake. Let our iconic legends have their day, it’s great and I love it, but I don’t want studios pouring sand over my eyes and telling me that’s all I need. Horror fans also want to see new legends emerge from the darkness of movie theaters. We want more villains to haunt our fantasies and show us something fresh and bold and scary. So who better than the Sandman to make all those dreams come true?
Sleepstalker is now available on Amazon Prime.
By Matt Konopka