Two writer-directors - Barrett J Leigh and Thom Maurer - team up for this adaptation of 'Beyond the Wall of Sleep', but the divergence of stylistic approaches on display scuppers what could have been a fascinating version of HP Lovecraft's 1919 story. Alternating from grisly black-and-white farce to full-coloured sensory explosion, it's a deeply unsatisfying piece of work, all the more so for the enormous promise it reaches on occasion.
In bred mountain man Joe Slaader (BLADE RUNNER's William Sanderson) is committed to the Ulster County Asylum after slaughtering his family in 1908. Young intern Edward Eischel (Fountain Yount) is drawn to Slaader, whose disfigured back taps into an ancient power. After Joe's bitten by an inmate, the offender is mutilated in his sleep by an unseen presence, and Eischel decides that he can use Slaader as a means to further his own theories. After being expelled for unethical practices involving a female patient, Eischel experiences a fever dream in an abandoned cabin, and must find his way back to Joe to overthrow the tyrannical Dr Wardlow (Kurt Hargen) and fulfil his own destiny.
After the astonishingly edited opening sequence, BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP fails to sustain the delirious, bloody visions of ancient evil that it has initiated. As the film begins, we are bombarded by feverish image collisions of a remarkable rhythm, colour and texture that resemble some of underground legend Stan Brakhage's work. Capturing that sublime feeling of dread that HPL's best prose hinted at, the filmmakers nonetheless take a step down from this experimentalism in favour of the pulpy feel of the author's lesser works, such as 'Herbert West: Re-animator'. What pans out is a stylised black-and-white comedy involving the struggle of various corrupt figures to assert their power over one another, featuring much overwritten, tongue-in-cheek bickering that may test the viewer's patience. Needless to say, the immature feud between Wardlow and Fenton, over control of the institution, does not flatter the film.
As Joe, William Sanderson looks appropriately unhealthy (perhaps playing off his BLADE RUNNER role as cyborg designer JF Sebastian) and unkempt, but does little aside from mutter incomprehensible words throughout. His presence does give the production a feeling of prestige, but the depiction of his fellow "white trash" mountain men - as retarded buffoons who stumble around like the aliens from BAD TASTE - pulls the film too far into the area of parody for its more frightening elements to carry sufficient power. The jokiness isn't totally useless, however: Eischel's ridiculous wig does reveal something major about his ghastly brain experiments, blurring the line bizarrely between doctor and patient, and paving the way to conjuring what Joe can call up, the well-rendered creature Amduscious.
One problem for those who tap into Lovecraft's work to make a film is the risk of becoming slavish. Instead of using the free-form delirium to explore new expression in horror, we are subjected to flowery, formal dialogue (echoing the chief criticism of HPL's work, his purple prose) and period settings that can be hard to achieve on low budget productions. While the budgetary constraints aren't apparent in the way that Christian Matzke's dreary 'An Imperfect Solution', BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP hovers so uneasily between devotion and pure expression, as so many 'New Lovecraft' films do. Damn shame considering the thrilling climax, which comes as close to evoking the author's nameless terrors and crawling chaos as anything I've seen since Mariano Baino's still stunning DEAD WATERS (1993).
Look out for Tom Savini in the film's opening, as a sheriff.
No extras on this DVD-screener, aside from a trailer for the film and a trailer for the making of featurette, which will emerge on the official release.
Review by Matthew Sanderson
|Released by Visceral Pictures|
|Region All NTSC|
|Extras : see main review|