M.I.A.: The Great, Creepy TV Ghost Story, Don't Go To Sleep

Man, I've got so many discs backed up I want to cover, I kind of forgot about about covering M.I.A. films.  That is to say, discs that have never been released on DVD or blu anywhere in the world and really deserve to be... just in case you've forgotten, too.  And this is one I've had on my list since I first came up with the concept: 1982's Don't Go To Sleep, a genuinely disturbing, long neglected ABC TV movie of the week that's better than most ghost-themed horror movies that get released theatrically today.

Scream Factory got my hopes up in 2013 when they announced their TV Terrors line.  There's only so many vintage TV horror movies that hold up this well; surely it had to be on the short list.  But unfortunately, they picked such klunkers.  The Initiation of Sarah is at least mildly amusing in a campy way, but I'm not sure I even accept that Are You In the House Alone? qualifies as horror (or "terror"); it's more like an after school special with basically one brief scene that plays like anything from a horror movie.  And look at the packaging.  They're not marketing the films to their fans or selling unfamiliar horror fans with what good movies these are; it's just big pictures of televisions with the word "TV" all over it.  Like that's a selling point.  Nobody's going to be excited because the movies were made for TV; people need to know what's compelling about the actual films themselves.  Oh, and making it DVD only well into the days when most serious collectors have gone exclusively blu probably didn't help.

So naturally, it flopped.  I read an interview where someone from SF said it was one of their worst sellers.  In fact, SF pretty much hung up DVD editions entirely around then.  Later on, they figured it out I guess, because they released Body Bags with full-size artwork for the film and John Carpenter's name emblazoned on the top.  They didn't put "TELEVISION" in giant letters across the top and a little Body Bags logo in the corner.  So hopefully maybe some day they'll balls up and take another stab at releasing some cool, vintage made for TV horror.  If they do, may I suggest this one?
Admittedly Don't Go To Sleep does start a bit stiffly, and it does have all the inherent flaws of a made for TV movie from the 80s.  It's got boxy, fullscreen framing (unless it turns out they did film for a potential theatrical release - wouldn't that be exciting?) and it routinely, awkwardly fades to black for commercial break.  Like I said, this film was never released on DVD or blu in any region, but it was released on VHS by Unicorn Video way back, so we can see how it's properly cut together without ads and TV junk.  Rips of that tape are all over the internet and still widely sold as pirated DVDRs on various grey market sites, which should show the labels that there's an active market for this movie even to this day.
So let me stop griping and finally get down to what's so good about this flick.  As an ABC program from the 80s, it's obviously not gory.  But it's surprisingly dark and edgy.  It's well written and goes places you'd never expect this movie to have the courage to go to.  It's got a fantastic cast, and while again, the editing is a little clunky and you can tell this had a short production schedule, once this film gets going, we get some strong performances.  Valerie Harper goes beyond her sitcom roots to deliver some strong, sincere moments as a grieving mother, we get Dennis Weaver, star of Speilberg's Duel and Ruth Gordon - Maude from Harold and Maude for God's sake.  And impressively, the little boy, who was also the son in Poltergeist, steals every scene he's in.
The story's quite serious and intelligently walks the line between a ghost being a genuine supernatural and a psychological representation like few ghost stories besides Henry James' Turn Of the Screw manage.  Briefly, a small nuclear family move back in with their aging grandmother, ostensibly to care for her as she grows senile.  But we soon learn the entire family is in need of this regrouping because they've just suffered the loss of a young daughter, and each one of them holds themselves in some way responsible.  They struggle but manage to get along until the youngest daughter, Mary, is visited by her deceased sister, who urges her to take revenge on her family, one by one.
Now, usually in any horror film where a nuclear family is under duress, they all survive okay.  Maybe a nosy neighbor will get it, but a family isn't like a group of teen counselors; they usually all live.  But oh no, ABC goes for it.  I don't want to get into spoilers, but nobody's safe.  Of course, you shouldn't expect Tom Savini-level slasher kills - although this film does make great, memorable use of a pizza cutter - this is a ghost story, meant to hit you in the emotions and generate a slow, building disturbance.  So even though you might be nonplussed by the droll first act, it's worth sticking with it as it worms its way in.  And while you might expect, canned, cliched library cues; they producers (including Aaron Spelling, if you can believe it) clearly sprung for a big, orchestral score.
There's no video quality to scrutinize here, as there isn't a release to judge.  I've just got a DVDR I made of a VHS rip I found someplace online years and years ago.  You can tell it's from video-tape, with the VHS lines along the bottom.  And it's got big, chunky macroblocks, suggesting this was probably uploaded at 320p at best.  It looks awful.  But imagine if somebody went back and scanned the original film elements?  Visually, it would be an entirely different world.  No film deserves to be seen looking like this, and Don't Go To Sleep definitely deserves to be seen.

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