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"Mary, Mary quite contrary, when will the nightmares end?
A psychological/suspense thriller of a family desperately trying to start again after the death of their oldest daughter, Jennifer. A new home in a new location and a promising new job seemed like the perfect way to forget.
Philip (Dennis Weaver) and Laura (Valerie Harper) moved their two children to a country home in northern California. The only hitch was Laura's mother, Bernice (Ruth Gordon\0 was moving in with them. Neither Philip nor the kids cared very much for the aging woman.
Was it the country seclusion that started Mary's nightmares again? Or was she still grieving over the death of Jennifer. Whatever the reason, something frightening - something deadly had a hold on her and was not letting go until Jennifer's death was avenged."
Way, way back in 1982 (when I was barely twelve) I remember settling down to watch a TV movie. Quite a big deal back then, as this was on after 9pm and it was a rare treat (my Parents sitting there with me, indulging my burgeoning interest in the genre). ... Actually, if truth be told, I only remembered a few things about it before I finally caught it again: the title; one enduring image (a pizza cutter being slowly ground up a circular banister, cutting deep into the wood as it went) - an image which was forever burnt into my young psyche; and the fact that it scared me (and my folks) so badly (which, of course, I loved!).
I finally - after years of searching - tracked down a copy of this film; however, being able to return to the spooky joys of our youth can be a decidedly mixed blessing. Admittedly, maturity can reveal levels ungraspable to your average twelve year old (I hated SUSPIRIA when I first saw it; it's now one of my favourite films), but, on the flip-side, what once terrified can look disappointingly tacky and hackneyed. Sometimes memories really are better.
So, it was with some fair amount of trepidation I slipped in this (unbelievably difficult to find) tape into my VCR. It was the first time I'd seen it since it originally aired; it had a lot to live up to.
DON'T GO TO SLEEP tells the tale of a family is attempting to come to terms with a tragedy (the death of the eldest daughter, Jennifer (Kristin Cumming)), who burnt to death in a car wreck sometime before) by moving to a new house, in a secluded country area. They make up the seemingly perfect unit: the archetypal mom, Laura (Valerie Harper), and pop, Philip (Dennis Weaver), and prepubescent children, the eternally squabbling Kevin (Oliver Robbins) (who found himself plagued by supernatural things from under the bed again in the same year's POLTERGEIST) and the pouty Mary (Robin Ignico). The omens, albeit seemingly unnoticed by the family, are not good - the property they choose is numbered '13666'; and, to put further strain on the thin veneer of good cheer, crotchety old Grandma, Bernice (Ruth Gordon), is along for the ride too.
The masks of well-adjusted happiness begin to slip. Philip comes to rely increasingly on alcohol; the children clearly dislike their Grandmother, who they bicker with nearly as much with as each other (and who, it is clear, regarded the dead Jennifer as her favourite); and Laura's attempt at milk and cookies perfection seems increasingly strained. To make matters worse young Mary is hearing voices, and not just any voices but those of her dead sister, constantly calling her name in low rasping tones from the dark recesses of her bedroom
At first the panicked child's screams are taken as night terrors, similar to the ones she suffered immediately after the death of her sister, but soon the constant badgering in the early hours begins to drive her parents to distraction. After she is found screaming in her bedroom - her bed on fire - they are eventually driven to the conclusion that she is severely troubled and in dire need of psychiatric help. Young Mary doesn't take kindly to this; her sense of isolation from the family unit is further enhanced when her dead sister appears to her in person (at first, in a startling scene, under the bed), and then in the garden. Dead Jennifer soothes her with the words "They don't miss me like you do - you've got to help me ...", playing on her fears of being sent to the nuthouse she encourages her to help her to take a deadly revenge on the others, who she blames for her untimely demise.
As tragedy strikes, and as all pretence of being a happy family unit finally disintegrates, the circumstances surrounding Jennifer's death are gradually revealed, and the mystery deepens as to whether the ensuing violence is from a supernatural source, or something closer to home and all the more tangible ...
Now, it's true that DON'T GO TO SLEEP wasn't as terrifying as I remember (how could it be?), but I was relieved to find that it still worked as an especially effective little creep-fest. Given its vintage there's ample material for cheesiness to creep in (and, let's face it, that's part of the charm of movies from this era) - and my mind did wander occasionally to Jan Brady's inner voices ("Mary, Mary, Mary!") - but I was surprised by the goosebumps I found breaking out several times as it transcended many of the limitations of the small screen. Terrific performances certainly helped, Weaver and Harper are very believable as a couple on the edge, and Ruth Gordon is fantastic (as always) as the bratty Grandmother - and it just goes places you just wouldn't expect a TV movie to go (where they certainly wouldn't these days). It's topped off with a good twist in the tail - and a sublimely creepy final image. And, even though it only really becomes a slasher movie with that scene with the pizza cutter, well, what a scene! So, even now it's not hard to understand how this flick, despite its humble origins, scarred a generation (just check out the nostalgically traumatised legions on the IMDB's comments for this film if you don't believe me!).
If you do get the chance to check it out, do. It's pretty hard to track down, but well worth it [I got mine at MOVIES UNLIMITED]. It's up there with the best TV horror flicks from the golden age - right up there with the likes of TRILOGY OF TERROR, as far as I'm concerned. And speaking of TV terror, it's worth checking out Valerie Harper's other, earlier foray into the subgenre - the stalker/DUEL hybrid, NIGHT TERROR (1977), where she finds herself pursued relentlessly cross-country by a mute psychopathic killer. RHODHA, the scream-queen, indeed.
And, who thought Aaron Spelling would have been one of the driving forces behind
this sublime TV terror flick? Although, he later further proved his horror mettle
when he unleashed Torri onto an unsuspecting world.
Just remember - whatever you do - don't ... check ... under ... the ... bed.
BODYCOUNT 4 female:2 / male:2
1) Female dies of heart attack
2) Male falls to his death
3) Male electrocuted in bath
4) Female burns to death in car (flashback)