TV producers have the ability to cash in on a hot-button topic or riff on a hit movie in record time, exploiting the crews and cast accustomed to a quick turnaround, which perhaps explains how this take of a vengeful ghost popped up on network TV around December of 1982, co-starring Oliver Robins, one of the child actors from June's blockbuster shocker, Poltergeist.
Robins plays Kevin, the older brother in a family still in mourning over the death of their eldest daughter Jennifer (Kristin Cumming). Only the youngest daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) is aware of a spiritual presence that's followed them to their new home, but it seems the spirit's been biding time until the family's emotional trauma is at an all-time low before starting a cruel streak of revenge killings.
The moment the family moves into their multi-room house things go very bad. Someone keeps whispering Mary's name and later torments her on her first night by setting her bed on fire. While her parents fix up the charred bedroom, Mary has to sleep in the upper level of brother Kevin’s bunk bed, although each night is equally restless until her tormentor finally reveals itself to be her dead sister Jennifer.
The ghost-child (weirdly dressed in an old-fashioned frilly dress like a Stepford wife) soon convinces weak-willed and impressionable Mary that everyone must pay for their part in her elder sister’s death - a horrible car accident that had Jennifer explode to smithereens with the gas tank. The first to go is sour-pussed, cigarette-addicted grandmother Bernice (played by perpetually prunish Ruth Gordon), and several more.
Ned Wynn's script is actually quite clever, and while some of the performances are wobbly - Oliver Robins doesn't show much range in his already limited role, and Harper leadens the gravitas towards the end with a lot of screaming - there are some unique twists that are legit payoffs to the little hints Wynn's been dropping from the start.
Richard Lang's direction emphasizes pacing, mood, and little visual gestures, such as the dolls in Mary's room which turn and gaze upon her quiet sleeping body before the ghost sets the bed afire; dad (Dennis Weaver) having a jug of martini in the bed with the radio a bit too close to the tub; and the chilling sequence in which Mary's advances towards her mother’s bedroom is covered by close-ups of a pizza cutter rolling its merry way towards the intended victim.
Sets were designed to show off the family's wealth and the kids' toy-packed room, but the oddest element in Kevin's bunk bed, which the parents decided to keep even though both kids get their own rooms. (Mary gets a sizeable brass bed, no less). The second bunk also has an abnormally low ceiling because the lower level had to be raised almost two feet off the ground for the shots where Jennifer appears and confronts a terrified Mary.
Don't Go to Sleep is pretty indicative of the occasionally decent TV movies that used to be produced by networks, and alongside eerie cinematography, Dominic Frontiere's mostly orchestral score really captures the surreal tone in which a pretty dead girl proceeds to wipe out her already guilt-racked family.
The teleplay’s a bit melodramatic now and then, but there’s a reason many people vividly remember that lengthy stalking scene with the pizza cutter. A really cruel tale of revenge best watch late at night.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan