Where Death Stop was hindered by somewhat clumsy writing, The Sleeper strips the script right down to the goddamned bone. The college teen characters being stalked and slashed in the film are archetypes, to be sure, but they’re defined archetypes. Much in the same way the Friday the 13th franchise managed to carve out a memorable jock, nerd, bitch, slut, pothead, and jokester with each entry, The Sleeper manages to bend the usual archetypes just enough to keep you rooting for these characters.
This is a big deal. You may not think so, but from a screenwriting perspective almost no recent slasher throwback has managed to craft convincingly genuine, sympathetic, and memorable archetypical characters, with the sole exception of meta-exercises like Behind The Mask: Rise of Leslie Vernon and Scream 4. Why this is a problem in contemporary stabs at the subgenre I have no idea. We can chalk it up to laziness or a lack of reverence for the writing that drove franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street to become cash cows.
Whatever the case, Russell nails it. Not so much in that I can remember names or any memorable lines of dialogue, but in that I can remember faces, styles, actions, and motivations. In essence, the essentials of a slasher protagonist, and that’s all you really need. I want these characters to live as much as I want to see them die, and Russell deserves rightful credit for it.
Yet, what horror fans will really go ga-ga for is the sheer retro-style cinematography that oozes off this baby. So authentic is the film in its grungy visual style that in certain shots it could easily be passed off as a lost 1981 slasher film that somehow slipped through the cracks of distribution only to be rediscovered, remastered, and distributed. Keep in mind, this is only in certain shots – a keen eye familiar to the trappings of digital video will recognize it as such, but Russell blurs the medium to startling success. Though a Blu-ray release has yet to be announced, I’d be interested in seeing if an HD transfer would bring the ’80s illusion to the forefront, or enhance the film’s immaculate level of detail.
Not only that, but his insistence on using practical gore effects over the usual CGI tomfoolery leaned on by standard slashers really enhances the flick. The film has some high-quality stabs, cuts, chops, and bludgeonings that retain the level of hokiness common to Savini-inspired gags of the period, but they never lose any of their ick factor either. The set pieces are nothing as opulent or protracted as something like Hatchet, but their simplicity and earnest context makes them pack even more of a wallop.
Of all the reasons to check the film out, though, I think the film’s synth-heavy score may give the film it’s longest legs. It’s a veritable audio dreamboat for the soundtrack-collecting horror set. Attributed to Gremlin (a cheeky nod to Dario Argento disco horror super group Goblin), who also provided the shocking sonic soundscape for Death Stop), the pounding, rhythm-heavy score is the aural equivalent of crack cocaine to lovers of John Carpenter and the knockoffs that imitated him. Synth scores will always be cool and in vogue (ask the makers of Inception if you don’t believe me), but they go together with body count movies like peanut butter and jelly. Gremlin’s score doesn’t just capture the feel of 1980s slasher film style, it nails it like a Navy SEAL sniper on a good day, with low winds and a brightly colored target. It’s thick and pumping and holds the film together beautifully, concealing shortcomings and heightening the film’s strong visual style.
The Sleeper deserves to be seen not because it’s some sort of neo-classic, but because it is an important film within the context of contemporary slasher films. It proves you can go home again, providing you’re willing to do your homework and take some chances. Like most slasher flicks, the acting is inconsistent and the story is thin, but for The Sleeper that just kind of legitimizes the whole thing. The only thing the movie is missing is a cameo from a genre legend, which…
Hey, Joe Bob Briggs! Yeah, he appears at the end of the movie, more or less giving it his seal of approval (and hopefully picking up a nice paycheck while he’s at it). Like Joe Bob’s motto regarding drive-ins, The Sleeper proves that slasher movies will never die, especially if done right.
Hardcore fans are in for a treat with The Sleeper. It’s a nostalgic trip down memory lane for anyone who grew up with scantily clad girls and bloody knives plastered on the covers their favorite VHS tapes. Pick up the film on DVD (or the snazzy VHS/DVD combo) at Gamma Knife Films website and find out for yourself why The Sleeper is sure to give slasher fans the best kind of sleepless nights.