Let’s face it: Most horror made for TV isn’t really scary, is it? I mean, we talk about these shows or movies frightening us as kids, but we could say the same about watching a PG rated flick that contains a few good jolts or disturbing themes. The bottom line is a lot of things scare us as children, including real life. And every once in awhile, someone will come strutting along and boast of a TV movie from their youth that they insist is genuinely scary.  And when they say genuine, they mean that it still casts a spell today, unvarnished by time. Well, having finally seen it for the first time, I can say that Don’t Go To Sleep (1982) fits the bill, offering up a few for real scares, a sense of unease, a clever teleplay, and an ending that’s still sticking to me like unwanted psychic residue.

Okay, we’ve turned on the tube and let it warm up. Let’s grab our faux TV Guide and see what’s on:

DON’T GO TO SLEEP (Friday, 9:00pm, ABC)

Valerie Harper and Dennis Weaver star as a couple still reeling from the accidental death of their oldest daughter. When they move to a new town, their younger daughter has visions of her dead sister – who convinces her to help extract revenge against the rest of the family. Ruth Gordon co-stars.

Oh hell yes. I would have been circling this so hard in the Guide my pen would have ripped clean through the paper. Now, this was made and broadcast several months (December 10th, to be precise) after the megahit Poltergeist, and I’m sure that’s what ubiquitous TV megaproducer Aaron Spelling (Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels) thought he was getting. Ooh boy. Not even close.

If anything, DGTS is the inverse of Poltergeist. So many horror films that deal with the family unit display them from a point of strength and unity, or ultimately end up there; DGTS starts off with a family in ruins and only gets worse. Nihilism runs rampant here – our main themes include alcoholism, mental illness, and above all else, guilt. Not exactly popcorn fare, and if people tuned out after the first hour to watch Falcon Crest or Remington Steele on the rival networks, they really couldn’t be blamed. This thing is a downer, man.

And yet it’s fascinating partly for this very reason. It all stems from Jennifer’s (Kristin Cumming) death in the car accident the previous year. Ned Wynn’s (California Dreaming) teleplay slowly (and wisely) doles out information about the crash as the story moves along; by the end we know what part (if any) each family member played. Until the ghost of Jennifer starts talking to her younger sister Mary (Robin Ignico), the family is just trying to cope with their misfortune by forgetting it. This is where it gets interesting. As Mary is the only one who can see and hear Jennifer, we are forced to buy one of two scenarios: Mary’s grip on reality is slipping to dangerously low proportions, or Jennifer’s ghost really is trying to make Mary complicit in her horrific scheme to wipe out the family. Either way, people die – remember, this is about the destruction of a family – and Wynn throws enough curveballs to keep us guessing.

Weaver (Duel) and Harper (Rhoda) are as reliable as expected, each getting to play notes of anguish and hatred that ring true. Gordon (Harold and Maude) is always great at playing Gordon, which she does here as Harper’s live-in mother, and a definite catalyst for the family’s implosion. The kids’ performances are a little more uneven; while they’re solid in the big emotional moments, they tend to go a bit broad with the smaller gestures. Oh, and to show how savvy Spelling was, he even brought on a Poltergeister for the younger brother (Oliver Robins). Robert Webber (S.O.B.) gives a nice turn as Mary’s psychologist, sent to him by her parents because they think Mary is not dealing very well with her sister’s death. They have no idea.

But no one here is dealing with Jennifer’s death very well, which adds a layer of inevitability and pathos to the project. Their guilt over her death is literally tearing them apart – but what pushes it into horror is they deserve it. (I’m not saying who, or why. You’ll see.) So essentially this plays out as an extended EC Comic where the sins of the past come back to haunt, but layered with honest feelings of betrayal and loss. There’s a depth of raw emotion at play that is uncommon for a film of this nature, and the film is designed to put the viewer through the wringer. Which it most certainly does.

Now, of course there are limitations to the small screen. Budgets, locations, effects all tend to be on a lesser scale. And usually the look of the film is compromised too – why worry about shot composition and camera placement if the largest projection is 36 inches? However, director Richard Lang (The Mountain Men) manages to incorporate crane shots, wide set overheads and swooping movements, and makes the film breathe instead of just passing by as flickering images. And while there are moments inevitable of any TV effort (pacing is always compromised by the need to synch up with the next commercial break), Lang and Wynn have managed to give it an organic feel as close to a theatrical release as possible within the confined structure.

Don’t Go To Sleep is a TV movie that, against all odds, manages to unnerve me a little – as an adult. Sometimes it’s a sound, or a sideways glance. And sometimes, it’s a smile. Never trust a smiling child. They’ll be the death of you.

Next: It Came From The Tube: THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.