You can tell Stephen King was losing his touch when he wrote “Sleepwalkers.” It’s a story about shapeshifting vampires who require the life force of young virgins to stay alive, and what does King call it? “Sleepwalkers.” Not “Shapeshifting Vampires,” not “Virgin Hunters,” not even “The Vampires Who Shapeshift and Prey Upon Virgins.” Nope: “Sleepwalkers,” which is not only dull but doesn’t reflect the movie’s content anyway. If you want your movie to sound scary, my advice would be not to give it a title that conjures images of people in their pajamas wandering around the living room half-consciously before getting back in bed. I should not have to spell this out.
Speaking of spelling things out, “Sleepwalkers” does that before it even gets started, with a title card that reads:
“Sleepwalker: Nomadic shape-shifting creatures with human and feline origins. Vulnerable to the deadly scratch of the cat, the sleepwalker feeds upon the life-force of virginal human females. Probable source of the vampire legend.”
Remember that. It will be important later, i.e., immediately.
In California, police are summoned to a house whose owners have disappeared, leaving behind a bunch of dead cats strung up around the porch. (Oh, what, now it’s against the law to hate cats and/or leave California?) The cops also find the desiccated corpse of a young girl in the closet. Since this is California, the corpse is tan and in the middle of writing a screenplay.
Who could have done this? Who would dislike cats so much, and who would kill a young virginal human female? The movie plays it cool, letting us wonder without revealing everything all at once (unless you read the title card at the beginning, in which case you know it’s sleepwalkers).
In Indiana, a shirtless teenage boy named Charles (Brian Krause) gazes dreamily at a yearbook and carves a “T” in his left bicep with a knife — you know, as one does. The object of his affection is a girl named Tanya, but the girl he REALLY has a thing for is lovely Mary (Alice Krige). Mary lives in Charles’ house and has traps set all around the property to kill stray cats, because she hates and fears them. (WHAT COULD THAT MEAN??) Mary has known Charles all his life. She is his lover. But in a way, she is also his “mother,” in that she cooks and cleans for him, and also in that she gave birth to him, physically, from out of her womb, 18 years ago.
That’s right, folks! Not only are Charles and Mary (spoiler alert) sleepwalkers, they are also (spoiled appetite alert) an incestuous mother/son combo! Charles’ interest in Tanya is strictly so he can feed on her life force and share it with Mom. We are not given the logistical details of how this works. Does Charles chew up the life force and regurgitate some of it into Mom’s mouth? And why can’t Mary go out and get her own life force? Why does Charles have to do it? What will she do if he disobeys, send him to her bed without dinner?
It doesn’t matter, because Charles is a dutiful son/boyfriend. He begins actively pursuing Tanya (Madchen Amick), a sweet and wholesome girl in his creative writing class. Charles is the new kid in school, having just moved to town (POSSIBLY FROM CALIFORNIA?????), and Tanya thinks he’s dreamy. She especially likes the completely fictional short story he wrote for class, called “Sleepwalkers.” (WHAT IS THAT ALL ABOUT??) She suggests they go to a local hangout called Homeland, which it turns out is a cemetery and, because this is a Stephen King story, also a make-out spot. (It is a well-known fact that Stephen King cannot become aroused unless he’s within 10 feet of a corpse.) They make a date for the next day.
In the meantime, Charles gets harassed by his pervy creative-writing teacher, Mr. Fallows (pronounced “Phallus”), who has figured out that Charles faked his school transcripts and wants sexual favors in exchange for his silence. Charles’ response to the extortion is to tear off Mr. Fallows’ hand, chase him into the woods, and murder him. As he does this, Charles’ face transforms from that of a handsome human to that of a Thundercat. Not counting the other thousand signs, this is the first sign that Charles is a sleepwalker. When he’s done killing Mr. Phallus, he drives his Trans Am at dangerous speeds on a country road, attracts the attention of a cop, and nearly runs over a little girl. The title card said sleepwalkers were “nomadic”; it failed to mention that this is because they’re lunatics who don’t know how to keep a low profile. They’re “nomads” the way Bonnie and Clyde were nomads.
The cop who chased Charles, named Andy (Dan Martin), has a pet cat called Clovis who accompanies him everywhere. Clovis is the Flash to Andy’s Roscoe P. Coltrane. When he gets back to the police station, Officer Andy tells his fellow cops that the speed demon he failed to catch might be an actual demon, on account of the guy got spooked and his face went blurry when he saw Clovis. Officer Andy didn’t bother to write down the car’s license plate number or anything like that, but he knows the guy is afraid of cats and has a face that is occasionally blurry, so he shouldn’t be too hard to find.
To update those who are just tuning in, this horror film is called “Sleepwalkers,” and its scary monster is a teenage boy who sleeps with his mother and can be killed by a common house cat.
The next afternoon, Charles and Tanya go on their date to the cemetery. They bring a picnic lunch, of course, and Tanya brings her camera along to take snapshots, and it’s just a pleasant day all around, up until Charles attacks her and tries to take her life force. No, it isn’t a sex thing. Come on. What kind of person do you take him for? Stealing a girl’s life force just means putting your mouth close to hers and sucking a green computer-animated laser out of it. You know, as one does.
Officer Andy drives past the cemetery just then and, recognizing Charles’ Trans Am parked out front, stops just in time to rush to Tanya’s aid and be killed by Charles, as was his destiny, being a small-town police officer in a Stephen King movie. Then Clovis the cat scratches Charles something fierce. Cats can spot sleepwalkers, as you know, and boy, I’ll tell you, if there’s one thing a cat hates, it’s Mondays, and also sleepwalkers!
A wounded Charles flees the scene and runs home to mommy so she can kiss his cat-inflicted boo-boos and make them better, and possibly also for some sex. Back at the cemetery, Tanya tells the cops and paramedics what happened. She gives them Charles’ full name and street address, and then remembers that she took pictures of him. If the cops develop the film in her camera, they’ll have a photo of him! Why do they need a photo when they already have his name, address, and description? Because if they don’t develop the film, we won’t get to see that sleepwalkers’ faces look blurry in photographs, DUH.
It’s around this time that Ron Perlman shows up. You saw his name in the opening credits — listed sixth, ahead of several people with larger roles — and you wondered where he was. Well, here he is, playing a state police officer who’s kind of a jerk and gets killed almost immediately. Ron Perlman, ladies and gentlemen! Ron Perlman.
Things get pretty stupid from there. This turns out to be one of those movies where firing a single bullet at a car makes it explode, and where you can stab someone in the back with a corncob and then say, “No vegetables, no dessert, that’s the rule,” which isn’t a joke, per se, but has the form of one, and serves to distract the audience from the fact that someone was just stabbed to death with one of the least-sharp objects in the world. (You know what was sitting next to the corncob? A knife.)
And I’m baffled by the mother/son situation. There is no reason for it in the story. I kept waiting for the movie to tell us that they merely pose as mother and son and aren’t actually related, but that never happened. Was King making some kind of commentary on the moral laxness of sleepwalker society? Why take such a vicious swipe at a culture that has never done anything to him? On behalf of sleepwalkers everywhere, I want to assure you that we do not carry on in such a fashion with our own mothers. The thing about hating cats is true, though.