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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Sandman
The Sandman
Tempe Entertainment // Unrated // September 19, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 16, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Product:
Good ideas don't always guarantee good movies. There are so many factors that can fail along the way that when an excellent concept makes it to the big screen more or less intact, it's cause for critical celebration. On the other hand, most efforts fall into one of several less than successful categories. There's the outright flop, where neither inspiration nor implementation shine. Then there's the missed opportunities, those films that fail in one of their major mannerisms, but otherwise get the point across pretty well. There's both versions of the cinematic spiral – one in which the movie gets better despite its errors and, naturally, one where the entire production seems destined to drop ever downward, barely holding onto its entertainment elements. Somewhere between such a failed chance and an example of failing upward is The Sandman. Tempe titan J. R. Bookwalter, creator of classic cult horror romps like The Dead Next Door and Ozone really wants to create a new eerie icon here with the title character. But so many things go wrong along the way, we can barely stick around to see if a legitimate legend is born.

The Plot:
Gary is a writer of romance novels, living in a dilapidated trailer park on a bad side of town. He's been dating a local waitress named Maris and he wants to get serious with her. But she hates his slacker lifestyle, and feels he will never make anything of himself as an author. One night, Gary's cousin Ozzy shows up, looking for a place to crash. Gary reluctantly lets him in. Unable to sleep or work, our unsettled scribe starts to notice odd things going on around the other trailers. Seems Gary is seeing a dark figure in a long hooded cloak hanging around his neighbor's homes. Even more disturbing, after such sightings, the people are usually found dead the next day. Convinced that something sinister is going on, Gary confides in his friends – nudie photographer Bud, and crazed ex-war veteran Zachariah. Our lothario says to ignore it. But our 'Nam casualty warns Gary that this may be the work of The Sandman, a being who brings about blissful, dream-filled sleep…and then swallows your soul. It is up to Gary to stop this creature, especially now. It apparently has its sights set on Maris.

The DVD:
The Sandman is either a great idea unevenly executed, or a really poor concept that more or less transcends its mediocre elements. Either way, it represents a real quandary for a fright film fan. On the one hand, old school auteur J. R. Bookwalter believes in the creature feature confines of the '80s monster movie. He more or less references genre efforts like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Rawhead Rex while pushing the limits of his insufficient budgets to develop some excellent fiend F/X. Sadly, it all appears in service of a VHS oriented narrative, a movie made up of individual scenes instead of a cohesive cinematic whole. The acting is fair to middling, the dialogue overloaded with clichés and quips. Still, some part of you – especially for those of us who are confirmed freaks for the genre – want this uneven effort to succeed. Indeed, many horror buffs aren't out to readily dismiss the latest lame excuse for macabre. Instead, we want to embrace it, to hang our outright obsession onto the latest fear factors. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here, for reasons that are readily obvious, and in some cases, too subtle to see at first glance.

This was clearly a problematic production for Bookwalter. As we later learn in the DVD liner notes and accompanying commentary, The Sandman was a movie he literally refashioned, hoping his efforts would result in a "Blockbuster" friendly film. Out went the gore and nudity, two elements most fear aficiandos adore. Such scattered and shattered beginnings do not bode well for any form of entertainment, let alone a film, and yet Bookwalter was convinced that the core idea, and the accompanying creature, was worth the risk. Too bad the rest of the script tripped him up. There is not much to the storyline here, and the characters involved – insomniac writer Gary, screw up cousin Ozzy, Maris, the most fickle woman in the world, Zachariah the whacked out vet, Bud, the best friend with a lame lounge lizard persona – don't necessarily peek our interest. They are a hard lot to identify with, hampered by a lack of true personality and cinematic dimension. In many ways, they are merely necessary narrative cogs, required to have something for the Sandman to battle and bounce off of. In fact, Bookwalter and his collaborator, Matthew Jason Walsh (responsible for the equally erratic Bloodletting) should have scuttled the love story, ix-nayed the dopey slacker relative, and de-emphasize the writer's block material. Having an unknown being killing people in a trailer park has a nice Jason Voorhees vibe to it. As it is now, The Sandman fails to capitalize on this concept.

Instead, this is a film that believes context will cure all its movie macabre ills. However, in order for such character-based concepts to work, you need actors capable of playing to the material. The Sandman just doesn't have the proper, professional cast. As our anxious author, A.J. Richards is okay, but he's never very effective as a hero or as an unfortunate witness to the Sandman's antics. Rita Gutowski is equally uninspired as his off-again gal friend Maris. She plays the role as more exasperated than confused, coming across as having long given up on Gary. As a human hamper overloaded with bravado, Terry J. Lipko is more needy than seedy. His Bud basically shows up, makes lame jokes in a very annoying manner, and then exits. Instead of enlivening a scene, he usually sucks all the possibilities out of it. But no one is worse here than Matthew Jason Walsh (yep, he's acting here too) as the rocker dude as relative sponge Ozzy. Horribly hack accent aside (does anyone REALLY talk in real life the way Crispin Glover did in The River's Edge?). Walsh wastes far too much time in unfunny repartee with his unlikely landlord. You can tell Richards barely tolerates the scribe's silly line readings. They barely connect, even when talking directly to each other. About the only human that puts out a serviceable performance is Tempe regular James L. Edwards. Playing a Geraldo Rivera clone (named – Gerald Rivers) he has a sly spark that the rest of the cast are sorely missing.

It has to be said that, all Meaning of Life/salmon mousse references aside, The Sandman is a remarkably effective creature. Though the obvious post production glowing red eyes tend to be a little obvious, the rest of the hooded horror get up is really well done. Add in a voice that resonates with evil and a strange umbilical sucking device that's both phallic and frightening, and this monster instantly becomes the best thing in the movie. Its frequent appearances are always welcome, and when the third act finishes with its hobbled heroics, the journey into The Sandman's world is nicely realized. In fact, as a whole, this is the kind of film that feels exactly like one of those slow, derivative efforts that made Charles Band hugely successful in the '80s. Had Bookwalter found a way to fix some of the flaws and had he kept his actors a little more in check instead of letting them turn into cartoons, we'd have an effective little shocker on our hands. But as with most low budget, independent fare, forces on both sides of the camera conspired to keep the project locked in its less than effective parameters. Some fans will forgive the flopsweat and enjoy the minor moments. Others will simply sit back and wonder how such a good idea went so creatively catawampus.

The Video:
As with most Tempe DVDs of older company catalog titles, the image here is remastered, color corrected, and enhanced with new special effects and optical elements. This renders the 1.33:1 transfer a little tricky. Sometimes, the film looks exceptional. At other times, it's a Super VHS nightmare. There is grain, generally murkiness, and subpar lighting to spare. Still, for a movie made for $20K, The Sandman does look pretty good.

The Audio:
As for the audio, the new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround remix is perfectly serviceable. It is definitely not going to win any reference quality awards, but with easily discernible dialogue, some sinister movie cues (from that Jack-of-all-Trades Matthew Jason Walsh) and a nice atmospheric punch, this is one decent sounding DVD.

The Extras:
Tempe always excels in the area of extras, and this disc is no different. It brings some material over from an original release of the film (a very enlightening 10 minute making-of documentary) and incorporates new bonuses like a full length audio commentary (featuring Bookwalter and Edwards) and 15 minutes of deleted scenes (complete with more Bookwalter narrative). Add in a music video, a set of trailers, a photo gallery, and a superb set of liner notes by the filmmaker and you've got a complete digital package. While the cut sequences do shine some light on the storyline's occasional stumbles, the real gold can be found in the alternate audio track. Edwards and Bookwalter had kind of a falling out over this movie, and their combined horror stories about the production are priceless. From battles with a producer who was also providing the talent for the shoot (for a percentage, of course) to the night the police had to be called when gang violence broke out, this is a primer on the pitfalls that can occur on an independent movie. It makes for compelling listening and ends up increasing the value of the overall presentation.

Final Thoughts:
Movies like The Sandman are hard to grade on a Skip It to Collector's Series scale. For some this will be unadulterated trash, a complete waste of time from beginning to end. Others will find this unmannered mess endearing, and give plenty of props to people who were at least trying to realize their cinematic dreams. While this critic appreciates both sentiments, he is still stuck for a conclusive final verdict. As a result, a score of Rent It will be offered. It will give those unsure of The Sandman's situation a chance to judge for themselves, while avoided the slings and arrows of disappointed fans who blindly buy anything with a genre bent. In truth, there is a lot to appreciate in this movie, from its seedy trailer park backdrop to its title terror. Had a little more attention been paid to those elements that undermine most homemade horror movies – uneven scripting, awkward acting, narrative gaps and production mistakes – we'd have a real winner on our hands. As it stands The Sandman is one creature feature that fails as much as it frightens.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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