Director: Brett Piper

DTV old school effects auteur Brett Piper (DRAINIAC) tackles H.P. Lovecraft in THE DARK SLEEP, out on special edition DVD from Retromedia.

Divorced author Nancy Peterson (Ashley Galloway) makes an equitable trade with her realtor ex Pete (Steve Diasparra, HALLOWEENIGHT) of an entire house in exchange for not pursuing spousal support and alimony. Despite the sacrificial altar in the woods and the pentagram in the basement, the house seems like the ideal place for Nancy to work on her second novel but her sleep is disturbed by strange dreams where she visits another dimension and her waking life the presence of a giant rat. She is convinced that her husband has stuck her with a lemon of a house (even though she badgered him into giving it to her), but he and her sister Kelly (Taylor Nicole Adams) assume that she is stressed out and also suffering from writer’s block. Nancy, however, has brought something back with her from one of her nightmares: a carving of a grotesque creature. Kelly sends a picture of the carving to physicist Walter Gilman (Ken VanSant) who identifies it as the god “Nyarlathotep” – aka “the crawling chaos” – who was worshipped by a cult known as “The Brotherhood of the Beast” and that the pentagram in the basement is actually a geometric design intended to allow one to pass between dimensions. When Kelly mysteriously disappears after a nightmare in which Nancy kills her, Nancy must use her dreams to enter the other world in search of her sister.

THE DARK SLEEP is not technically an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. The opening titles credit the screenplay to director Brett Piper and “Additional Material from ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ by H.P. Lovecraft” (which was previously adapted for the screen as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR in 1968 by Tigon and under its original title by Stuart Gordon for the MASTERS OF HORROR television series); and the film does draw only a few elements from the source story as well as others to shoehorn itself into Lovecraft mythos. The giant rat Brown Jenkin – an amusing (actually adorable) rod puppet creation – comes from the source story, as does the character of Walter Gilman who is its young dreaming protagonist (the Gilman character here also namedrops astrophysicist Arthur Eddington whose “The Nature of the Physical World” was an influence on the story). Although elements of the dreaming part of the plot come from the story (including an episode of sleep paralysis), this aspect owes more to NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

The setup is a bit of a slog, but not because the house isn’t even remotely historical or atmospheric – after all, it isn’t the story’s “witch house” but a modern home with vinyl siding and carpeted floors – or the combination of neat stop-motion creatures and visual effects that look like a mash-up of THE CELL and TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL; it’s the ill-tempered main character. Even though her tendency to be abrasive is addressed in the dialogue, she pretty much comes across as the least sympathetic character even when facing off against her ex and a pair of comic relief rat catchers (it doesn’t help that in attempting to write about her divorce as the subject of her next novel she refers to her fictional stand-in as a “saint” having “suffered more than any other woman”); this isn’t necessarily a criticism to Galloway’s performance skills since in later scenes she achieves a nice sibling chemistry with Adams while still remaining abrasive. There is also some of the usual lapses in logic associated with nightmare logic films: we see Kelly seeing strange lights and hearing noises surrounding her sister’s sleepwalking nightmares only for her to later act as if her sister’s disappearances themselves were the most bizarre aspect; however, Piper’s visualization of the other dimension is creative and ambitious, and the climax is energetic. Composer Jon Greathouse (WITCHOUSE 3) and director of photography Matthew Smith (THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED) are vets both of Piper productions and DTV horror.

Retromedia’s single-layer DVD features a progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. Shot in HD, the image isn’t very film-like but it isn’t distracting. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix is lively during the dream sequences. The dialogue is clear, but the original sound recording is inconsistent with plenty of background noise (some of it very noticeable, some of it only evident when listening to the track with headphones); but this is mainly due to shooting on location on a budget. Director Brett Piper provides an audio commentary track which also features the participation of producer Mark Polonia, still photographer Anthony Polonia, and actors Steve Diasparra and Ken VanSant (whose house served as the main location). Piper chose a modern house to get away from the usual rundown horror location, and points out some less evident visual effects (like adding an actor’s reflection into a window since they could not get it on location, matting out windows to erase passersby, and matting out a softlight in the middle of a shot that no one noticed at the time) as well as a handful of long takes that are not evident as such because of the dialogue. They joke that the edit of the film before the dream sequences were added in played like a Lifetime network drama. In discussing the effects, Piper mentions that some shots had flatter lighting simply because they were running out of time (they did not finish all of the greenscreen shots but did manage several hundred in two days). The filmmakers are justifiably proud of what they achieved – without too much backslapping – but forthcoming about what went wrong, and auditing the track may prove instructive to low budget horror hopefuls.

Also included is a making-of featurette (6:28) in which Polonia talks about Piper’s previous collaboration with him (supervising the effects on HALLOWEENIGHT) and the director’s detailed approach to mounting an effects-heavy film, as well as how old school effects ground the viewer and the actor. Diasparra talks about acting against a green screen (often without the presence of other actors featured in the same scene). Interspersed with their comments is some behind the scenes video as well as shots of Piper and company constructing the detailed miniatures (some of Piper’s graphic-novel-quality storyboards are also shown). A short collection of outtakes (2:43) include the usual line flubs, boom shadows, mugging for the camera, and some ridiculous running-in-place-against-a-greenscreen shots. "To CG or Not CG" featurette (1:28) is a series of captioned stills detailing the construction, painting, and stop-motion animation of one of the creatures (computer effects were used to then blur the filmed motion, composite the creature against the background, and duplicate it to depict two monsters running beside one another. The film’s trailer (1:16) rounds out the extras package. (Eric Cotenas)