by Jason Coffman
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The trend of emulating past styles and eras of film keeps on truckin’, like the man said. The next month will see the release on home video and in theaters of such retro fare as Joseph Guzman’s Grindhouse/grindhouse tribute Nude Nuns with Big Guns, Stuart Simpson’s Russ Meyer/Roger Corman homage El Monstro Del Mar, and Troma’s highly anticipated Father’s Day. That’s an awful lot of nostalgia for one year already, but the list would not be complete without Justin Russell’s The Sleeper, a throwback to the heyday of the American/Canadian slasher film boom and the VHS culture that followed in its wake.
The Sleeper opens with a pre-credits sequence set in 1979 in which a sorority girl is presumably murdered by the titular villain (Jason Jay Crabtree). After the credits, the action moves to 1981, when Amy (Brittany Belland) is approached by the girls of the Alpha Gamma Theta sorority as a potential pledge. They invite Amy to a party, and she convince her best friend and roommate Ava (Ali Ferda) to join her. Before the party, the Alpha Gamma house receives an ominous prank phone call, and during the party Ava thinks she sees someone lurking outside the house. Things take a turn for the sinister after Cindy (Jessica Cameron) takes her boyfriend Bobby (Paul Moon) up to her room and then seems to disappear.
While Bobby is worried something has happened to Cindy, the sorority house continues to get creepy calls informing them of who’s “next.” Each of the girls turns up missing as the Sleeper’s reign of terror continues unchallenged, but there’s still plenty of time for a mid-film dance sequence and some naughty pool hijinks in between the crude, nasty murders. By the time Bobby convinces local police detective Drake (E. Ray Goodwin) that something serious is happening, will it be too late? Who will survive, and will there still be enough left of them to pledge Alpha Gamma Theta?
The Sleeper is a meticulous reconstruction of the look and structure of the slasher films of the early 1980s. It borrows liberally from obvious sources— Black Christmas is high on the list with its creepy “prank” calls and anonymous killer— and synthesizes them into a very enjoyable slasher vehicle. Some of the costume and hair choices might be out of place, but the fantastic score (by “Gremlin”), none-too-bright victims, tense stalking scenes and nonsensical ending absolutely nail the style and tone of the films to which Russell pays tribute and clearly loves. While the film looks perhaps a bit too slick in its DVD presentation to fool anyone into thinking The Sleeper is a genuine “lost” early-80s slasher film, the limited edition release provides a much more convincing format.
Packed in an oversized box, The Sleeper limited edition presents the film on DVD and on a bright red VHS tape, complete with “50 cent charge if tape not rewound” sticker! The VHS is almost certainly the definitive presentation of The Sleeper, complete with incorrect aspect ratio (stretchy people!) and enough noise to convincingly replicate the look of a much-rented VHS tape. Additionally, the limited edition also features a replica flyer for the Alpha Gamma Theta party in the film, a nice touch that puts an already great limited edition release over the top. Horror fans who prowled the shelves of their local video stores in the 80s and 90s will likely get a kick out of The Sleeper, which sets a high bar for future retro horror replicas.
The Sleeper is available on DVD from Amazon, and in a DVD/VHS combo pack from Gamma Knife Films. The DVD features a commentary track by writer/director Justin Russell, an hour-plus “making of” featurette, trailers for The Sleeper, a faux trailer for Don’t Go in the Attic (look for this film’s poster in The Sleeper), and Joe Bob Briggs’ Drive-In Total for The Sleeper!
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and is a regular contributor to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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