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Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Who says a festival has to end just because... um... well, just because it ends?

There was three weeks of programming that I missed before I made it to Montreal, and there were a number of films I heard good things about. The festival was kind enough to provide me with screeners of many of these films, and I’m working my way through them slowly. The first two films I saw when I got back here to the Labs couldn’t have been more different, and really sum up how hard it is to have one blanket definition of “horror” on film.

It breaks my heart to think that CHASING SLEEP is going to be dumped to video here in America. It’s not fair. Films like GINGER SNAPS and CHASING SLEEP have just as much right to play theatrical dates, even if only on the arthouse circuit, as anything else I see there. Yet, because of the stigma placed on horror films, these movies rarely get their chance with an audience. In the case of this, Michael Walker’s debut feature, that means people are going to miss one of the most persuasive glimpses into a crumbling psyche since Lodge Kerrigan’s shattering CLEAN SHAVEN.

Ed Saxon (Jeff Daniels) can’t sleep. Or maybe he can and he just can’t remember doing it. Either way, his days and nights have begun to blend together, and as the film starts, Ed is in bed, staring up at a disturbing wet hole in the ceiling of his bedroom. It’s the middle of the night. He is alone.

Thing is, he’s not supposed to be alone. Ed is married. His wife hasn’t come home from her teaching job, and now it’s the middle of the night. Ed gets up, paces a bit, finally decides to start calling around to see if any of her friends know anything. He calls the hospitals, then finally calls the cops. A uniformed officer comes out to his house to take a statement and tells him there’s nothing they can do until 72 hours has passed. Ed tries to sleep, but the house seems strange, wrong around him. Sleeping pills don’t help. Even when he loses a few hours, it’s not like sleep. It’s more like a black-out, a skip in a record. Next thing he knows, there’s a detective (Gil Bellows) at the door who wants to talk, who brings news about Ed’s wife’s car. It’s been found near the house of a gym teacher from her school, a George Simian, who may have been having an affair with her. Ed is shocked by the revelation. Or is he? Maybe on some level, he knew. Either way, he tries to be helpful with the detective.

He loses more time, misses work, gets angry calls from the Dean’s office. He’s a professor at a small local university, a former poet, but he’s too scattered, too befuddled to face his students. One of them, a girl named Sadie (Emily Bergl) with a crush on Ed, comes to the house with soup, concerned, hoping to make some sort of connection with him. George Simian shows up and beats the hell out of Ed. The pipes of the house begin to fail and waterstains ruin several walls. A finger is found under a dresser. And still... Ed can’t sleep.

Jeff Daniels is great in this film. It’s easy to underestimate Daniels as an actor. He tends to be one of those easy-going presences who rarely stands out from the films he’s in. This time, he IS the whole film. This is like a male version of REPULSION, a meltdown of a fragile psyche, and Daniels makes you believe in it every step of the way. The further we get into the film, the more Ed questions what has happened to his wife and what role he may have played in her disappearance, the more Daniels convinces you that this man is capable of violence and equally capable of forgetting it ever happened. He’s a guy who gave up on all his dreams, and when you don’t have any dreams, what’s the point of sleeping? He knows his marriage is shit, even if he’s never admitted it to himself. He hates his job, hates his house, hates the life he’s trapped in, and his body and his mind are pulling him apart as a result. In scene after scene, he’s heartbreakingly sad, and I really felt for this character. He’s not just some convenient lead character as in most horror films. He’s specific, well-realized, familiar. This is a role that feels lived in. The horror here comes from not wanting to see Ed dissolve before our very eyes. As his grip on reality gets looser, there are some nightmarish visions, and writer/director Walker does a great job keeping control over these potentially jarring images. He’s aided by his cinematographer Jim Denault, who did such great work on THE BELIEVER, a film I saw at Sundance this year, and 1999’s BOYS DON’T CRY. The supporting cast, which is really only a few other actors, all do sterling work. You might recognize Emily Bergl from CARRIE 2 if you saw it, but this is a much better showcase for her. Sadie is a sad, broken little bird who reaches out to Ed because she recognizes someone in similar pain, and there’s one scene where the two of them almost connect, where they seek solace in each others’ arms for the briefest moment before the poison in Ed overwhelms him again and he pushes her away.

When this film was released in France as INSOMNIES, it evidently did quite well, and I think it’s a damn shame it won’t have a chance over here. Even so, when it does hit video, search it out and take it home. With the lights low, late at night, CHASING SLEEP should find its way under your skin, lodging there with its potent nightmare imagery. It certainly did for me.

On the other hand, I would say that you should avoid the brutally stupid SLA$HERS at all costs. It is a witless satire of reality television that consists of one joke that is worn out before the film even really gets started. I wish I could say I liked the film. Writer/director/editor/producer Maurice Devereaux evidently worked on the picture for a number of years, and any time you see a labor of love, you root for the guy to pull it off. I do, anyway. I want those to be the little gems I get to share with people. In this case, though, I can’t find anything to recommend. I watched the first hour of the film with John Robie before he begged me to turn it off, and when I finally made myself watch the second hour, I was shocked by how it continued to get worse as it went on.

Like SERIES 7, this is about reality television escalated to the degree of institutionalized murder. Claudine Shiraishi plays the host of SLA$HERS, a show where six contestants are dropped into a maze where they must face three psychotic killers. Anyone who survives wins a $10 million prize, and there’s a $2 million bonus for every psycho who is killed. The show is set in Japan, but the film takes place on the day of the first American edition. Devereaux, shooting on video, has built his film as a hyperactive version of ROPE, designed to play as one continuous 120 minute take. He hides his edits (or attempts to, anyway) in black or as he goes around corners or as someone walks in front of the camera. As a result, we see every single second of the taping of the episode.

This is not a good thing.

The first problem is that the cast stinks. Flat out, no nice way to say it, these people are terrible. Sarah Joslyn Crowder plays the film’s hero, Megan, and she is a strange little thing. She can barely keep her eyes open, looking perpetually stoned through the film, and her snarled line readings never once convince us that any of her emotions are real. She starts off weak, as is the formula, and is supposed to blossom into a ferocious survivor by the end of the film. Instead, she just stays whiny until the film’s final moments, and she never earns one iota of sympathy. Devon (Tony Curtis Blondell), the buff black guy who is determined to win the game, is all attitude and no nuance. He doesn’t know how to do anything but flex his admittedly impressive pecs. The rest of the ensemble cast of contestants, including Michael (Kieran Keller), Rick (Jerry Sprio), Rebecca (Carolina Pia), and Brenda (Sofia De Medeiros) are all one-note creations, hammering home their singular choices in scene after scene.

Then there’s the three psychos. Here’s where Devereaux could have really had fun. Instead, Chainsaw Charlie and the Preacherman (both played by Neil Napier), as well as Dr. Ripper (Chris Piggins) are boring, not threatening in the least. They aren’t menacing, and as a result, the film never once engaged me as an actual horror film. They’re also not funny, so it doesn’t work as a comedy, either. Instead, they’re just stereotypes, going through the motions.

The film is profoundly ugly, the video not doing anyone any favors, and the gimmick about shooting in real time gets old very, very quickly. Devereaux tries to explain that there is only one cameraman for SLA$HERS, and if he’s near you, that means something is going to happen, but that just doesn’t make sense. If a show was this high-tech, they would cover every inch of the death maze with cameras. They’d be constantly looking for the best angle on each bit of action. Not here. They’re perfectly happy to have one camera trying to keep up with the action, even when the contestants split up.

Bottom line... real Japanese TV and the new wave of American reality television are so bizarre already that doing a satire of either of them seems like an easy shot, an obvious shot. If Devereaux showed a knack for shooting fun gore scenes or any sort of suspense, I might cut the film a little slack. Instead, he telegraphs everything. Every beat is obvious, and there’s not one genuine surprise in the thing.

I have no idea if this is going to get any sort of release or not, but I can’t imagine anyone clamoring to pick it up or knocking doors down in a rush to see it. Of all the films I was exposed to at Fantasia, this may well be my least favorite.

I’m going to try to watch EL CELO, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE, and VISITOR Q in the next day or so, and I’ll be back with another Fantasia report as soon as I do. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 9, 2001, 7:21 a.m. CST

    Chasing Sleep sounds good

    by Jack Diamond

    usually if Moriarty says its good it is, so i'll follow his word.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 7:29 a.m. CST

    Chasing Sleep sounds good......

    by Dr Loomis

    I read a review of it on another site,and that was also singing its praises.I really wanna see it and hope it arrives in England soon. Never heard of Sla$hers though.Don't think I'll bother checking that one out.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 7:45 a.m. CST

    Clean, shaven

    by virkku

    It's nice that somebody still remembers this terrific, disturbing film. I saw it 6 years ago in a finnish film festival and I have never heard of it before or after that in any media. It feels sad that nobody seems to know this film. Not quite the masterpice Moriarty seems to think it is, but very good and original.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 7:52 a.m. CST


    by reni

    ah fuck it... if Chasing Sleep's sent to straight to video they can always remake it at a later date.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 8:04 a.m. CST


    by No. 41

    Finding out about small gems and potential gems like "Session 9" "Chasing Sleep," "Ginger Snaps," "Memento," (which was once a small gem), and "CTHD" (ditto) are why I visit this site. Anyone can cover the biggies. Oh yeah, I do sometimes enjoy the unintentional hilarity that is the SW talkbacks.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 10:42 a.m. CST

    Which movie won? I liked Millennium Actress & Crash Landing.

    by Kiyone

    I live in Montreal and I still don't know which movie won the Grand Prize this year! I hope it was Millennium Actress, though I also liked Crash Landing, the Chinese airplane disaster movie. I did enjoy seeing Laputa on the big screen, though I can appreciate why Disney won't release it theatrically, as the animation (especially of the villains) is a lot more primitive than Mononoke, though that's to be expected, as Kiki's Delivery Service was the first "big" budget Ghibli film. Steve Brandon

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 1:49 p.m. CST

    The Male Version of Repulsion

    by Anton_Sirius The Tenant, with Polanski putting himself in the lead role. Not to take anything away from Chasing Sleep, which is a solid little film. I'm just sayin'.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 3:38 p.m. CST

    Re: Kiyone

    by Dan42

    I was there when the winners were announced, so I'll try to remember some of the winners. First animation prize was Millenium Actress (which also won in the Innovation category), second was Metropolis and I *think* the third was Nekojiro-so. Otaku was first for Short Movie and L'Ilya (with its depressive director ^_^) second. Joint Security Area was in the Asian Feature Film winners, and I think The Isle too. Heart of the Warrior was first for International Feature... Damn! Why haven't they displayed the winners on the website yet? (and why is my memory so bad?) There are so many categories that is makes the prizes almost meaningless, but I *DO* remember one important thing that was said in the awards ceremony: Millenium Actress is by *far* the movie that got the biggest number of votes, bigger than any movie in any year of the festival!

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 6:41 p.m. CST

    Chasing Sleep sounds good...

    by damn_freemasons

    FOR ME TO POOP ON! always wanted to try that.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 8:12 p.m. CST

    hey nomi

    by jeff bailey

    Can you tell us what The Convent is about?? Please folks when you mention cool movies for us to find, tell us a little about the plot etc. I look forward to trying to find it.

  • Aug. 9, 2001, 8:21 p.m. CST

    Yeah, Nomi

    by Huneybee

    I would like to know a little more about The Convent, too.____Curiosity Hasn't Killed The Bee Yet <Scolded, yes. Killed, no.>

  • Aug. 10, 2001, 11:39 a.m. CST

    Thanks Dan... (also my pick for worst presentation)

    by Kiyone

    Well, that Millennium Actress was the best animated film at Fantasia (Laputa and Akira don't really count, as they're just rereleases) isn't really disputable. Metropolis was the only anime I missed, but whomever wrote the review for wasn't too thrilled. But is there no singular Grand Prize for "Best of the Festival", such as the award given to Perfect Blue in 1997, anymore? Has Fantasia turned into the film festival equivalent of "everyone gets an award" school field days? _______________________________________________ The worst anime presentation I saw was Boogie Pop Phantom. The anime itself looks to be interesting, and the dubbing wasn't too bad (not Cowboy Bebop quality, but much better than Utena, which featured most of the same dub actors). The animation, which was produced by Studio Madhouse (Perfect Blue, X, and the Fantasia guide didn't mention this, but also Cardcaptor Sakura) is above average for a TV show, nowhere near as beautiful as Cowboy Bebop, though a bit better (IMHO) than Lain. But the video quality was terrible: the colours were almost completely washed out (yes, I know that BPP is from the same creators as Lain, in which the colours were intentionally faded in some scenes, but in the BPP presentation I saw, I doubt the "washed out" effect was intentional), and there were lines all over the screen. It looked almost like watching a really bad fan sub (like a 10th generation transfer or something) at my anime club. (Like my anime club, they used a video projector, as I doubt that there are any 35mm prints of BPP available.) I don't have any inside knowledge as to which video format the copy of BPP that the Right Stuf sent to Fantasia was, but I'd guess that it was a VHS tape, and not a DVD. Also, BPP is TV animation, so the you could almost count the lines of resolution. BPP isn't the type of animation that was meant to be watched on a big screen; blown up to giant size, the inherent flaws of TV budget animation are glaringly obvious. I'd suggest that Fantasia consider showing TV anime on pay-per-view, in conjunction with the festival, but this would probably be a licensing nightmare.__________________________________________________________ Steve Brandon