MARCH 2, 2013
I've seen a number of films over the past couple years that are love letters to classic genre films, though few have won me over as well as The Sleeper did. Undeniably an homage to the original Black Christmas (with a few direct nods to Halloween and Friday The 13th for good measure), writer/director Justin Russell avoids a common issue with his film that has sank so many others - he gets the tone exactly right, and it made for a great way to kick off the weekend's Cinemayhem Film Festival, which honored independent horror/thriller films past and present.
Now, no one has reinvented the wheel here. Russell is not the first, nor will he be the last to make a film that pays tribute to the golden era of slashers, particularly the lower budgeted, independent ones that haven't gone on to the same lengthy shelf life that My Bloody Valentine or The Burning has. But so many of these modern throwback films are seemingly made by people who are overly critical of those "classics to us", and thus have their actors act bad on purpose, create characters that are overly (as opposed to innocently) dickish or obnoxious, and basically never let us forget that we are watching an ironic approximation of such movies. Russell, on the other hand, avoids all of that. Save for the digital photography (which he has tried very hard to give a 16mm look, and perhaps the same DVD that they showed on a giant movie screen would look more "right" on a TV in that regard), at no point did I feel like I was watching anything but an actual 30 year old slasher movie. Hell it's even SET in 1979, and there is only ONE very minor anachronism in the entire movie, one you probably wouldn't even notice on a regular sized screen. And that's even more impressive when you consider that it has plenty of exteriors and a number of locations; the college campus where the film was shot thankfully hasn't modernized itself much over the past 30 years.
But even if it took place today he still gets the little things right. The characters are a bit dim but not unlikable, and being that they're playing sorority sisters that's even more impressive. The FX are practical, and made with the correct assumption that we'd rather see a decent effort at a dummy head than some CGI enhanced effect that looks just as fake anyway. It even retains the low points of such fare; the movie stops cold for a disco sequence at one point (perhaps a nod to Prom Night), and the killer can be a bit too mercenary at times - there's a disappointing lack of stalk scenes, and the Final Girl is the only one who gets chased (in fact all but one of them aren't even aware of his presence until he's already swinging a weapon). The body count is more than sufficient, so I would have gladly traded two deaths if it meant the ability to draw a few of the others out a bit.
On the plus side, he gets the homage aspect down pat. The plot is very similar to Black Christmas (a very disturbed murderer makes creepy phone calls and kills the residents of a sorority house in the wintertime), and he goes a bit overboard with the nearly identical musical score (then again, so did the actual Black Christmas), but there's enough difference to keep it from becoming a retread - there's no humor or attempts at social commentary, for example. And when they start tracing his calls (SPOILER) he is thankfully NOT in the house with them, and Russell seems to be having fun with this non-twist. Repeated shots of the attic window and a throwaway line about the house being so big that it's hard to tell who is home seem to be foreshadowing a reveal that he, like Billy in Christmas, is in the house with them the entire time, so this was a great little bit of misdirection.
And when he pays tribute to the other slasher classics, he does so in a non distracting way; casual fans would probably miss them entirely. The end credit font is identical to Halloween's, and one male character gives a look up the stairs that mirrors Judith's boyfriend in the opening scene of that film (which is also referenced by a POV shot of a light going off upstairs). As for Friday, the ending is a bit more overtly similar (with the heroine waking up in a hospital, which could also be foreshadowing a (I hope!) direct sequel that followed in Halloween II's footsteps), but the aforementioned decapitation is shot just like Mrs. Voorhees'. And while the killer is clearly modeled after Billy with regards to his MO and vocal tics, his LOOK is very similar to Russ Thorn from Slumber Party Massacre, in that he doesn't have a costume but still avoids being "just some guy" like in Final Exam.
Most importantly, though - even if you ignore all the homage stuff, it's just a straight up effective little slasher movie. You won't often forget that it was low budget (30 grand, much less than most of the films it honors even before you factor in inflation), but it moves well, has some nice scares, a variety of kills (he favors a hammer, but an axe and some rope get some play), and a very likable heroine in Brittany Belland, who is refreshingly not mousy (she's the one who urges her friend to go to the sorority party) and has a great scream. The script sometimes awkwardly leaves her without much use (he's after the sorority girls and she's not actually a member), but Russell pulls it together for the big chase at the end, which includes a terrific stalk scene inside a theater.
As I mentioned at the top, I saw the film at a festival honoring independent films, and thus most of the movies were still seeking distribution, but I'm happy to tell you that you don't have to worry about the possibility that this will never make it your way - it's already available on DVD! I already bought a copy (which includes commentary and other bonus features), and if you're a fan of Black Christmas or old school slashers, I highly recommend this one, as it's one of the best love letters to that era I've ever seen.
What say you?