Beyond the Slimy Wall: They
By Stephanie Star Smith
April 25, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
Wes Craven has a thing about nightmares.
Even though his involvement in They seems to be nothing more than tagging “Wes Craven Presents” before the title in certain incarnations - his name appears nowhere in the credits - the film does spend its time in Craven’s favorite stomping grounds by examining one of the lesser-known and more disturbing conditions where dreams go to that dark place.
After a satisfyingly scary opening sequence that once again reminds us of the importance of making sure the closet door is closed when we go to bed so the monster in the closet can’t get out, we meet our protagonist, Julie. The very quintessence of the average, everyday person, Julie is a graduate student in psychiatry about to defend her thesis. The picture of a sunny, well-adjusted young adult, Julie (presumably) has a stable job, a decidedly stable boyfriend Paul (human blank Marc Blucas, who manages another remarkably chemistry-free screen romance), two slightly kooky-but-not-too-weird roommates and apparently not a care in the world. Which in horror-film terms, much like in soap operas, means her life is about to be ripped to shreds.
The first crack in this cavalcade of normalcy is revealed when, during a completely unsexy make-out session with Paul Julie gets a call from childhood friend Billy, who, the movie informs us through the ensuing discussion between the couple, is a few French fries short of a Happy Meal. But Julie feels responsible for Billy and goes to meet him as requested at a rather seedy-looking diner.
Once we get to the diner, we quickly learn that Billy has a substance abuse problem, and has also suffered from night terrors since childhood. As the lights flicker on and off in the diner, Billy rants and raves about how “they” affect electrical things; to the music of an infant’s cries, Billy warns to beware of babies crying, because “they” can be sensed by babies. To Julie, the lettuce has clearly fallen out of Billy’s taco. But before she can pull the shrink routine, the lights go out completely for a few moments, and when they come back up, Billy has a gun. Which he proceeds to eat, saying something about making sure “they” can’t come for him, and of course traumatizing Julie in the process.
At the funeral, we learn that Billy had two other friends in the world, Sam and Terry, both of whom he met in college. The arty Goth couple tell Julie that Billy actually sought them out, as they, too, suffered from night terrors as children. Julie admits that what bonded her and Billy as kids was that she is also a night terror sufferer. The idea that Billy kept these three close because of the night terrors is reinforced when they find Billy’s journals, full of what seem to be the writings of a raving lunatic, but that strike a chord with Billy’s surviving friends, who begin to realize that they share more in common than just Billy and the night terrors.
And yes, folks, that was all just set-up to the meat of the film.
One of the great, and more fascinating, aspects of this film is how well it recreates night terrors. For those who are fortunate enough to not suffer from this particular sleep disorder, there are some distinct differences between the clinical traits of night terrors and the run-of-the-mill nightmare that are helpful to know when viewing this film.
In a nightmare, the monster, or murderer, or whatever your antagonist-of-choice is, chases you or attacks you or appears in a dreamscape. Sometimes it might seem vaguely familiar, such as a place where you worked or maybe your old high school, but it’s completely divorced from reality. For a sufferer of night terrors, the dream action takes place in the waking environment. In other words, the monster or demon-of-the-night chases or attacks the sufferer in whatever surroundings the dreamer was in when she went to sleep. The gorilla jumps on your own bed to grab you; the vampire appears at the side of the living-room couch where you fell asleep; the monster crawls out from the under the bed in the hotel room you booked for your business trip. There is no visual separation between the dream world and the waking world.
Which leads to the other salient difference between nightmares and night terrors. When we dream, the brain sends out signals to different parts of our body, stimulating them. It also emits chemicals that, in effect, paralyze us, so that when we dream we’re walking down the street, we don’t get up and go walking down the street. But in people who suffer from night terrors, the paralytic agent is not entirely effective, so if the person dreams that she’s being attacked by a gorilla, she fights back, not just in the dream, but in real life, at whoever or whatever is impersonating the gorilla in the dream. If the sufferer dreams she runs down the hall and into the bathroom to escape the monster that’s chasing her, she’ll wake up in the bathroom, having run down the hall in her sleep. Others can’t tell - unless they happen to be familiar with night terrors or the sufferer’s sleep patterns - that the person is still asleep; her eyes are open, and she can even engage in conversation, but the brain isn’t fully conscious.
Add to the already-palpable fear that night terrors brings the idea that maybe there is something in the dark, waiting to grab you when you’re in the grip of one of these too-realistic dreams, and you’ve got a pretty effective horror film. And that is as good a description as any of the atmospheric, creepy flick that is They. Its 89 minutes fly by at such a clip you can hardly believe it’s ended when it has. And that final scene...even if you don’t suffer from night terrors, it will likely haunt your sleep for a bit.
Oh, and make sure the closet door is closed when you go to sleep. You know, just to be safe.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.