Bill Douglas, Joanna David, Nickolas Grace, Fulton Mackay, Michael Medwin
UK DVD: 23 Sep 2013
XTC’s Andy Partridge once complained that the mainstream music industry has little room for mavericks and eccentrics. Reluctant to accommodate and promote the challenging and the unusual, most bland-yet-powerful corporations instead feel the need to shape, categorise and pigeonhole artists’ output into digestible and easily marketable chunks. (Listen to XTC’s wonderful song, “Funk Pop a Roll” to hear one of the best lyrical broadsides ever recorded against the music business).
In fact, you can apply Partridge’s observation to most creative industries. With that in mind, to watch Saxon Logan’s Sleepwalker is to know why his career as a feature director petered out with alarming rapidity very soon after this film was made. It’s not that Sleepwalker is poor or artistically unrewarding. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is that in the world of commercial films—even those that are destined for limited release and distribution—any kind of genre-busting filmmaking can be anathema, guaranteed to make the moneymen and women tasked with forking out the cash and balancing the books afterwards somewhat twitchy.
Even disregarding Sleepwalker’s unusual style and content, the film’s awkward 51-minute running time represents yet another marketing obstacle. (Consider that Sleepwalker was made at the height of VHS’s popularity, when all manner of cinematic lunacy appeared on tape, and even then it failed to secure a release.) Still, despite all this, Sleepwalker is an engaging oddity, and its DVD debut is more than welcome, and long overdue.
Logan’s nightmarish, “fever dream” film features Richard and Angela (Nickolas Grace and Joanna David), a wealthy couple visiting siblings Marion and Alex (Heather Page and Bill Douglas) in their remote and rundown family home, Albion. The group’s plan for a quiet dinner party are disrupted when a violent storm erupts and damages the already ramshackle property, ruining the food, and this forces everyone to repair to a local restaurant, which turns out to be inhabited by a mysterious owner and his resident waiter (played excellently by the British television comedy stalwarts Fulton Mackay and Michael Medwin).
However, the new becalmed atmosphere is temporary, as drunkenness and aggressive class conflict escalates within the group and continues after they all return to Albion. It’s against this backdrop of hysteria that an unseen killer in the house begins to pick off the friends, one-by-one.
Herein lies the main issue with the film: whilst Sleepwalker is everything that an interesting independent production should be, it is also, unfortunately, everything a commercial failure should be, too. Sometimes touted as a kind of ersatz slasher featurette with shades of both British social realism and Argento-esque flair and vibrancy (if one can imagine such a thing),
is not generically-defined enough to please straight-up horror fans, nor is it purely avant-garde enough for the arthouse circuit, either.
Instead, Sleepwalker is stuck between the two, on the cusp of each but never quite accommodated by either. More than anything, the film resembles a politically savvy, beautifully demented and visually striking student giallo film, and this is not meant in a derogatory way at all; rather, Sleepwalker demonstrates that Logan is a director happy to deviate from convention, to mix, to mash, to satirise, to create something truly original, and this can only be admired.
Such a unique filmmaker was never going to have a clearly-defined and predictable career path, so it’s therefore unsurprising that Logan has only one directorial further credit after 1984’s Sleepwalker, and that is for a lone 1991 episode of the environmental Channel Four television documentary series Fragile Earth). With such a sparse and bizarre filmography to his name, even Logan’s obscurity is obscure.
So, it falls to the BFI to resurrect this rarely seen treat, which is presented here in a dual DVD and Blu-ray format. Sleepwalker is released by the Institute as a part of the Flipside series, and I can’t imagine a more appropriate home for the film, among a steadily growing roster of titles that never fitted in with the mainstream, or were ignored upon initial release: the bold, the marginal, the troublesome, the mend-bending and everything in between.
Certainly, Sleepwalker is a strange and diverse film. Any production that features the autobiographical Scottish director Bill Douglas in a rare acting role, and also draws upon the visual influence of Italian exploitation specialists such as Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci to examine the effects of Thatcherism on British society, is a perfect candidate for the barmiest recesses of Flipside stable.
The disc’s extras are terrific, and feature three extremely rare short films: the surreal The Insomniac (Rodney Giesler, 1971), Stepping Out (Saxon Logan, 1977) and Working Surface: A Short Study (with Actors) in the Ways of a Bourgeois Writer (Saxon Logan, 1979).
Additionally, there is an enlightening 75-minute interview with Logan recorded in early 2013, and a long and informative illustrated booklet with plenty of essays and film notes about all the material on the disc.