Somewhere in rural England a brother and sister, Marion (Heather Page) and Alex Britain (Bill Douglas) live together in an old farmhouse, though their relationship has grown frosty over time. Marion works as as a publisher's reader when what she really wanted to be was an author in her own right; Alex might have shared those ambitions but had to content himself as a translator, and both of them are living unsatisfied lives, as shown when she suffers nightmares such as the one she had this afternoon as she took a nap. This evening they are expecting Marion's old friend Angela (Joanna David) and her husband Richard Paradise (Nickolas Grace)...
But all will not go well, as while she is quiet and mousy, he is a raging, reactionary boor who will bring any hope of a pleasant time to an unendurable end. But is it only Richard who is to blame? Could it be all four of them who combine to mess up what could have been a perfectly nice way to spend time out in the country? It was plain to see from the first ten minutes or so of Sleepwalker that we were in allegory territory, which given the era it was produced in - deep in the Thatcherite eighties - could have been a cue for hammering the audience over the head with right-on polemic, which it does appear to be for a proportion of the running time.
That's the fifty minute running time, which back in '84 when the short supporting feature shown in cinemas was a dying art other than in the arthouses, and less likely in the mainstream cinemas, meant Sleepwalker was consigned to obscurity pretty much as soon as it was released, and its writer and director Saxon Logan suffered much the same fate, this being his final work to see the inside of a picture palace, and even then the most substantial of his brief oeuvre. But over the years, the chosen few to have seen a rare print averred that it was unjustly forgotten, and while it was rumoured to have been lost forever, Logan had kept a copy.
Now it is easier to see, were the film's champions correct and is this a hidden gem of British horror which came at a time when that grand tradition was dwindling to near-nothingness, its renaissance in the twenty-first century never seeming so far away? Well, yes and no, no because its political shadings tended to hew close to caricature and came across as an odd fit to the genre-inflected, slasher climax, leaving a work which appeared to be aiming for an audeince in that small intersection in the Venn diagram between politics students and horror flick fans. When Alex and Richard are trading rhetoric in the restaurant, one old socialist seemingly defeated by the times and one odiously self-centred capitalist on the up, it's difficult to see whose side we are on.
But then on closer examination Sleepwalker did not court such obvious pigeonholing, as while there were heavy-handed aspects which echoed Logan's mentor Lindsay Anderson's then-recent Britannia Hospital and its approach to making satire so whack you over the head blatant that any subtlety went flying out the window with a hefty kick, there was also contained here a quiet ambiguity as if we were invited to sit back and observe more than get caught up in the tensions, be they suspense-based or sociological. It's true the farmhouse is named Albion and the surnames are winking at the canny viewer, but Logan set his characters in a bigger picture, suggesting that these modern (for the mid-eighties) attitudes would pass just as the old ways did and we needed that perspective, though whether this would take in a self-destructive quality as society fought amongst itself was a moot point. This didn't quite slot into any one style, making for a memorable and awkward - in the best sense - experience. Music by Phil Sawyer.
[This is released by the BFI on their Flipside label, again proving there is a healthy market for the obscure British movies they specialise in, and featuring a selection of short films - including The Insomniac, making a neat double bill with Sleepwalker - and an illuminating interview with the director as extras.]