Don't Go in the Lightning. Bug's Lair #6: Don't Go to Sleep (1982)
As the ghosts and hobgoblins of the Halloween season draw ever closer, one might find it harder to bed down for the night. This could be out of superstitious fright or it could be because the wee small hours are the best occasion for watching scary movies. Likely, for most folks, the sleepless nights aren't caused by the specter of a deceased sibling who may have returned for diabolical purposes. However, that's just the issue in today's film, the 1982, star studded, made for TV creepfest, Don't Go to Sleep. I don't know what was in the water at the TV studios in the 70s and 80s, but, while today's TV films are either laughably bad (Lifetime, I'm looking at you.) or bloated messes ballooned out to a mini-series format, there was a magic to many of the old TV gems. In the case of Don't Go to Sleep, it was definitely a dark magic indeed.
Phillip (Dennis Weaver), having lost his job in the aerospace industry, and his wife Laura (Valerie Harper) are forced to move in with her mother Bernice (Ruth Gordon), a stubborn smoker who has never liked Phillip. The family is still reeling from the loss of their daughter Jennifer (Kristen Cumming) in a car crash a year prior and they hope that the move will bring some normalcy to their two remaining children Mary (Robin Ignico) and Kevin (Oliver Robbins). Unfortunately, it does just the inverse. Mary becomes convinced that she is seeing and hearing Jennifer, a fact which is most distressing to her parents. These appearances also coincide with misfortune landing time and time on the family. Mary's bed is set on fire, Bernice is scared to death by an iguana on the loose, Kevin falls off the roof while trying to retrieve a Frisbee, and Phillip learns the hard way why you don't keep a radio on the side of your bathtub. As these events continue to unfold, Laura doesn’t know if she should place the blame on her living daughter or if it is skullduggery from beyond the grave.
The reason Don't Go to Sleep, a relatively unknown film, ranks at the middle of this list is the creep factor. The visions of the deceased Jennifer appearing to her younger sister are chilling. Sure, blood and guts don't abound. In fact, I don't recall even one or two drops from this TV film, but when a film is well paced and the timing works, then viscera is not something that has to be on the menu to give me the willies. Don't Go to Sleep exploits the childhood fear of something lurking under the bed (though I don't know if it being your dead sibling is any better or worse than it being the boogie man) while also playing around with the idea of sibling rivalry gone incredibly wrong. I won't say much more as it would ruin the film's central conceit, but there was more to Jennifer's death than a mere car accident. As if the visions of a ghost who is clearly out to do no good weren't enough, this added layer of human cruelty adds an extra and profoundly disturbing level to the horrors within the film.
Don't Go to Sleep also reaps the benefits of having a solid cast anchored by a trio of poised child actors. Dennis Weaver, best known on for his role on Gunsmoke and seasons on the cop drama McCloud, and Valerie Harper, TV's Rhoda Morgenstern, were both experienced actors, and their talents even carry scenes where they discuss Phillip's job dilemma, an unneeded plot point if there ever was one. The real stars of the films are the kids. Oliver Robbins had a big year for horror in 1982. While it saw him nail the part of Kevin, described by Mary as a jerk because "he's nine years old and a boy", it also saw him appear as the brother in a more prominent feature film when he appeared as Robbie, the kid who gets menaced by a tree, in the film Poltergeist. Lead actress Robin Ignico had a big year in ’82 as well narrowly missing the part of Annie in the big screen adaptation and instead appearing as Annie's pal Duffy. Ignico brought an otherworldly maturity to the role of Mary which keeps the audience off balance even more than the plot. Lastly, something must be said for the angelically creepy performance turned in by Kristen Cumming as the ghost of Jennifer. Cumming, who made appearances on Silver Spoons and The Facts of Life, seems to know something about the facts of unlife as she turns in a startling turn as the spirit with spurious intentions.