The latest release in the BFI Flipside series revels in the social satire of its era with glee. Though of course the main draw of the release will be Saxon Logan’s main feature, Sleepwalker (1984), the release itself is built up to make a whole package of potential double and even triple bills of viewing; some Logan themed, some nocturnal themed. The main feature simply hasn’t the running time to warrant a vanilla release so instead the disc is packed with other Logan shorts as well as Rodney Giesler’s rare fantasy, The Insomniac (1971).
Sleepwalker is an interesting amalgamation of influences and ideas. Though much of the attention will go to the presence of Scottish director, Bill Douglas, in a jittery role as a sidelined left-wing academic and translator, the film itself is a wonderfully multi-layered satire on the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s. Of course, this is driven through using an atmospheric, fantastical horror as a starting point, but the message still dominates. Alex (Douglas) and sister Marion (Heather Page) live far outside of the city-obsessed society of 1980s Britain. Inside their decaying house, they have dreams of sleepwalking and murder, presenting horrific but ambiguous visions of the future.
Their vague friends Richard (Nickolas Grace) and Angela (Joanna David) come to stay, much to the distress of the two men who are polar opposites, emotionally and politically. Before they arrive, a seemingly freak occurrence causes a kitchen window to smash, resulting in the couples going to restaurant. Throughout all of this, the four have had increasing political and sexual tensions building to an awkward conclusion. Sleepwalker works because its message, though obvious, is skilfully smuggled into the horror scenario. With very clear ties to James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), the film has a visual beauty in spite of its pulpy image. The atmosphere around the house is built superbly by Logan who uses blue light in particular as a visual code for the ominous and the dangerous.
As the characters begin to reveal themselves, the moral lines blur to excruciating effects. Richard is the archetypical Thatchetrite yuppie; keen to make a profit at all costs, even with the sweat of modern slave labour. An 80s tint is given to him by the fact that he makes his money from VHS sales and profits, adding further to its role as an accidental social document. When Alex’s sister talks of his sleepwalking attempts at murder, the awkwardness reaches a new level. The couples are sat oddly, implying that they should really switch; an event that almost occurs back at the house (though also has the further oddness of one being a split in a sibling relationship).
Sleepwalker ends in a pulpy bloodbath though who is on the receiving end and who is the perpetrator will be left unnamed. After the political and emotional discourse that follows, bloody murder almost feels refreshing and works as a nice parallel to the arguments of Thatcherite self-interest. In this sense, Sleepwalker does somewhat show influence from Dario Argento too (with Logan even saying so in the feature length conversation with him on the disc) with grizzly murder and an impossibly 80s score coming straight out of the early Giallos.
Along with Sleepwalker comes Rodney Giesler’s The Insomniac; a film included for its thematic ties more than anything else. As a double bill, the pair work well together with Giesler’s cascading dreams sharing a fantastical, if slightly less grisly, tie with Sleepwalker‘s. The Insomniac follows the dreams of a nameless man (Morris Perry, or Captain Dent for Doctor Who fans) whose night-time world resembles an eerily idyllic country retreat. As night falls, his sleep is disturbed by the sunlight of his fantasy world where he stumbles upon a middle-class party in the country.
The dream turns into a sexual one as he escapes the claustrophobic party with a woman (Valerie van Ost) who he then runs off with into the forest. They have sex in a lake but it seems so sickly and twee that the dream doesn’t feel like a particularly plausible one. This comes around full circle when he wakes up into another dream where the country retreat is replaced with an industrial one, with torments from his middle-class captors as he is left naked and alone. Both of these films imply a regression when in a state of sleep that leads to more primal feelings. This regression seems simple and child-like in Giesler’s film, further added to by the fact that the man’s children also inhabit this countryside fantasy world; using it to get away from the reality of the harsh city flats that they live in.
Saxon Logan is present throughout the rest of the extra features in two short films: Stepping Out (1977) and Working Surface (1979). The former is an interesting document of an atypical couple’s morning routine with obvious thematic ties to Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (a film it accompanied on its release at the time). The latter is a witty satire, again staring Bill Douglas, as a writer struggling to create a reasonable scenario for two female characters (the two female leads from Sleepwalker). The jagged performances in the short actually add to the idea that the drama is being formed and then scrapped each time by, the aptly perfectionist, Douglas. His struggle at creating a scenario for them without projecting his own fantasies of lesbianism and self-detriment into the work is genuinely amusing and another nice companion to Sleepwalker.
Add to this a feature length interview with Logan himself and a huge booklet full of essays and there is no better way to experience Logan’s work and themes. Sleepwalker itself is an astonishing period piece with a skill sadly absent from the more funded end of British cinema in the 1980s. The period itself seems ripe for discourse and analysis in hindsight but Logan is one of the few to openly satire and question the role of Thatcher’s Britain while it was happening and, most importantly, through an intelligent, art-house lens.
Sleepwalker is released on the BFI Flipside label and is out now.