Beyond the Wall of Sleep

If my review of The Dunwich Horror proved anything, it was that neither H.P. Lovecraft or the gothic horror films of American International Pictures are areas in which I am particularly expert. It’s for that reason that, when word came down that October was going to be yet another month O’ Lovecraft here at Teleport City, I eschewed making the obvious choice of tackling Dunwich director Daniel Haller’s earlier Die, Monster, Die! I just didn’t think I had that much more to add to what I’d already said on the subject. But that left me at a bit of a loss as to what film I would cover. Keith helpfully reeled off a list of yet-to-be-claimed titles (I won’t call them the dregs, exactly), one of which, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, I had never heard of. I darted over to the IMDB and perused the user reviews for Sleep, of which subject lines like “Quite possibly the worst film I’ve ever seen”, “Avoid at all costs”, and (emphasis mine) “The single worst movie I’ve ever seen” were fairly representative. “Yes,” I thought to myself. “That just might be the one.”

Of course, now that I’ve seen Beyond the Wall of Sleep, I must say that, if it is, in fact, the single worst film you’ve ever seen, you have lead a blessed life indeed. That is not to suggest that it is anything other than an extremely not good film, mind you. And I say that having brought to it a sincere determination to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, the movie had obviously already had its fair share of scorn heaped upon it in the three years since it was made. For me to approach it with the intention of savaging it would have been like lining up to kick a corpse. So, when I started out watching it, I made an effort to focus on the odd interesting visual or satisfying bit of gore –- anything, basically, that I could use to argue that it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Despite that, however, it wasn’t long before I found myself feeling a profound hostility toward Beyond the Wall of Sleep. In all seriousness, its one of those movies that’s marked by such an obstinate foulness that it literally seems to be daring you not to hate it.

Beyond the Wall of Sleep does itself no favors by choosing as its source material a short story that, even when judged within the universe of Lovecraft’s generally unfilmable fiction, is particularly unsuitable for cinematic treatment. The 1919 tale, which bears the same title as the film, is presented as the hushed account of a young intern at a turn-of-the-century insane asylum. Said intern has become convinced that the vivid dreams described by one inmate, a psychotic hillbilly by the name of Joe Slater, are actually visions of an alternate reality existing alongside our own. For me the most enjoyable thing about the story is the way in which Lovecraft works himself into a right tizzy describing just what a smelly, inbred, lower-class, white trash cretin Slater is. (Though somehow he neglects to actually include the word “cretin” in his description, so touché, Lovecraft!)

Lovecraft may have been terrorized by thoughts of what lay beyond this world, but he was equally terrorized by a large portion of the people who inhabited this one along with him, specifically those of a different ethnicity and lower social standing than himself. Given that, Joe Slater comes across like the embodiment of the man’s worst, eugenically-inspired nightmares. As the author goes on to describe this backwoods “primitive” of his own creation — variably as “debased”, “decadent”, “bovine”, “debauched”, “aberrant” and living in “a filthy sty where he dwelt with a family as indescribable as himself” — it’s easy to imagine him thrilling as each adjective reeled off drives him to delicious new levels of horror and revulsion. Even with all the spooky business removed, Lovecraft’s vapors-inducing portrait of Slater and his subhuman, hill-dwelling brethren would be enough on its own to make Beyond the Wall of Sleep a compelling — and illuminating — read.

Anyway, the story’s narrator concludes that, because Slater is possessed of the dull imaginative faculties so typical of his lowly kind, the nocturnal visions that he describes must be the product of a separate consciousness. Finally, by means of a device of his own invention, the intern is able to “jack in” to Slater’s dreaming mind, so to speak, resulting in him envisioning himself as some kind of light-being soaring through the universe in search of vengeance against some vaguely described cosmic “oppressor”. It turns out that Slater’s body is playing host to such a being, and once Slater dies that being will be freed from its earthly shackles to mete out the payback its been thirsting for all these eons. Once this comes to pass, our narrator, in classic Lovecraft fashion, is left only with his unshakeable sense of disquiet to keep him company, along with a tale to tell that is destined to be met only by pitying stares from his incredulous peers.

Beyond the Wall of Sleep writer/directors Barrett J. Leigh and Thom Maurer resort to all of the expected devices to open up Lovecraft’s tale for the screen –- more characters, a more elaborate back-story, etc. –- but also add some elaborations that are less explicable. For one, in addition to his already established afflictions, poor old Joe Slater is gifted with a vestigial twin growing out of his back. It is theorized by the asylum’s authorities that this may be the source of the demented yokel’s mysterious second voice. Thus is obsessed intern Edward Eischel (played by the wonderfully named Fountain Yount) forced to argue in favor of more meticulous research methods against eevil “alienist” Dr. Wardlow (Kurt Hargan), who is anxious to simply throw Slater onto the operating table and cut him open.

The filmmakers also attempt to tie the story in with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos by having the being inhabiting Slater be, rather than some kind of space traveling light creature, an elder, formerly Earth-dwelling god by the name of Amducious. (It’s pronounced “am-DOO-shus”, and is even more hilarious when spoken in awe, as it usually and very frequently is. It’s also great for dropping into everyday conversation, e.g. “What in the name of Amducious is going on around here?”) It is explained that Slater’s family has been practicing inbreeding for generations in order to create the perfect vessel for Amducious’s return, with Joe being the end result. Meanwhile, Edward keeps our gag reflexes busy via his escapades with a young woman whom he’s got shackled up in the asylum’s basement, a human toy whom he keeps in a state of constant sexual arousal by the application of electrodes to her exposed brain. And then of course there is the collection of brains in jars that he dotes upon periodically, none to the betterment or elucidation of the film’s overall plot.

Joe Slater, by the way, is played by William Sanderson, an actor whom, if you are a person of sensible tastes, you will remember most for his performance as J.F. Sebastain in Blade Runner, but if you’re me, you’ll remember most for his role as the racist hoodlum in Fight For Your Life. Watching Beyond the Wall of Sleep made me consider for the first time whether I actually thought Sanderson was a good actor or not. What I think is clear is that, in those roles that he is most known for, he was perfectly cast, conceivably as much or more so for his distinctive look and manner of speech than for his abilities as a performer. In Sleep, Sanderson’s performance, aside from those occasional instances when he speaks in the voice of Am-DOO-shus, is largely limited to looking catatonic and repeating a single line at whatever point the filmmakers feel they need to reel things in and remind us of their ostensible central purpose:

“I kiss my loved ones. I sleep… I wake with bad things.

It’s not much to go by, but, even so, there is something unmoored about Sanderson’s performance that suggests that if he were perhaps provided with better direction – or maybe just gave a shit – an actor of his experience could have done something more with the part. He is, after all, the only recognizable star in the film, unless you want to count Tom Savini, who, in a weak bit of fan-dering, shows up to recite several lines for absolutely no reason. (Sadly, Savini was otherwise uninvolved with the film’s production, despite the fact that his appearance onscreen might lead you to assume otherwise. Sad because, although there are some fun gore effects in Sleep, they are generally of the caliber that totally ignores the hard facts of bodily integrity, allowing for human heads to be torn open with all the ease of oven fresh biscuits.)

Mmm… Oven fresh biscuits.

Anyway, for all its shortcomings, Sanderson’s performance is far and away the most competent in the film, for beyond his contribution, the acting in Beyond the Wall of Sleep is uniformly atrocious. Fountain Yount has never met a line that he couldn’t mangle as if it were written in an unfamiliar tongue, and Sleep‘s lines are particularly mangle-able. Leigh and Maurer were obviously going for the feel of Lovecraft’s prose in their dialogue, even going so far as to put chunks of text from the original story in their characters’ mouths. Anyone who is familiar with Lovecraft’s writing knows that this would make for awkward thesping among even the most well-trained actors, and in the hands of talent as amateurish as that on hand here, it’s a recipe for disaster. Yount seals the deal by reciting his lines with a guileless half-comprehension that kept reminding me of John C. Reilly’s character in Boogie Nights. So, yes, basically we have Chest Rockwell –- in an outrageously phony wig, no less -– essaying the lead role in a Lovecraftian tale of terror.

Of course, I don’t want to just single out Fountain Yount for blame. Bad guy Kurt Hargan, for his part, indiscriminately spits out every one of his lines in the same tone of mock contempt and manages to pronounce the word “pretense” as if he’s never heard it spoken before. Marco St. John, in his role as Dr. Fenton, the asylum’s director, affects a ridiculous accent all too reminiscent of Donald Duck’s uncle Ludwig Von Drake. To cap things off, and to better showcase each of these performers’ total inability to act, the screenplay thoughtfully provides each with an extended freak-out scene so that we can more fully savor their inadequacy. In Yount’s case, this amounts to a sequence in which he screams “My brains!” over and over again. In St. John’s, it involves him stumbling down one of the asylum’s overcrowded hallways while screaming the word “Mine!”, also over and over again.

While the acting in Beyond the Wall of Sleep is a definite lowlight, an improvement in that department would only have made the difference between the movie being “fun” bad rather than painfully so. Beyond that, what keeps it mired in the realm of bad-ness, in addition to a shoddy script, is the A.D.D. directing style of Leigh and Maurer. The two seem to go wherever their attentions take them at the moment, which is seldom somewhere that is in the best interest of maintaining any kind of decipherable narrative.

For one thing, they are far too in love with the whole turn-of-the-century madhouse ambience. Every time they interrupt the action to show us a flickering image of yet another loony rocking on his heels or a legless mongoloid dwarf on a rolling board, we get farther away from remembering or caring what the movie was supposed to be about in the first place. In addition, the fact that absolutely every person and surface within the asylum’s walls looks to have been liberally spackled with effluvia offers a perfect example of how visual elements within the film that could have had some actual horrific impact end up getting lost in a flood of comic excess. In other words, it’s not as if Leigh and Maurer don’t know how to create a frightening image, it’s just that they appear absolutely clueless as to when to leave it alone once they have. The same goes for their overstocking of the asylum’s halls with the kind of central casting grotesques referred to above — although it does at least insure that there’s always someone on hand for the principles to kick, elbow, or even stab with a hypodermic needle when simply gesticulating exaggeratedly won’t do the trick.

Other things that Leigh and Maurer are far too in love with are all of the nifty tricks that can be accomplished via variations of film stock, camera speeds — or, more accurately, digital approximations of same — and alternations between color and black-and-white, a conceit that accounts for the majority of Beyond the Wall of Sleep‘s most headache inducing moments. Leigh, while a first-time director, is a longtime industry professional, and certainly knows his way around the technical aspects of creating a powerful image. Although this pays off in isolated instances in Sleep, it ultimately works to its detriment. For if the film was simply the work of technical incompetents, it would have at least had some underdog appeal. But sadly, Night of Horror this is not. As a result it simply comes off as unforgivably self indulgent and undisciplined, which accounts for those feelings of hostility I mentioned earlier.

That said, I can’t feel like my choosing this film to honor Teleport City’s month of Lovecraft was entirely a mistake. As I’ve said elsewhere, Beyond the Wall of Sleep is in some ways the most Lovecraftian of Lovecraft adaptations. In its aftermath, I despaired at being able to accurately describe the true nature of its horror: The waste, the utter pointlessness, and, above all, the annoyance that gripped my being on an almost molecular level. True, some potentially good ideas were put forward, but thrown to the dual lions of across-the-board incompetent acting and heedless directorial drift, their chances of survival were doomed from the start. Given that, as I watched the names reel by during the end credits, I just had to keep asking, “How could none of you have stopped this?”

So, there you have it: Beyond the Wall of Sleep. Not the single worst film I’ve ever seen. But were my movie-watching habits not comprised of so much concerted bottom-scraping, I might not be able to offer it even that non-compliment. Happy Halloween, everybody… and, for the love of Amducious, choose your entertainments wisely!

Release Year: 2006 | Country: United States | Starring: William Sanderson, Fountain Yount, Kurt Hargan, Marco St. John, Rick Dial, Rachel Mellendorf, Lauren Cornish, Gregory Fawcett, Frank Schuler, Tom Savini, Robert Jayne, David T. Alcorn, Kenneth Jackson, Jason Petty, Perry Poston, Keith Valcourt, Robert Ziegler, George Peroulas | Writers: Barrett J. Leigh, Thom Maurer | Directors: Barrett J. Leigh, Thom Maurer | Cinematographer: Bill Burton | Music: Kaveh Cohen | Producer: Koko Polosajian