Mad As Hell: Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (1991)

Dave ventures into one of L.A.’s Historic-Cultural Monuments and decides that it’s the saving grace for an otherwise disappointing thriller.

Camino Palmero.

I know what you’re thinking.

That it’s the title of that irritatingly catchy debut album by The Calling – the soft rock ensemble led by Alex (son of Charles) Band – that housed their hit single ‘Wherever You Will Go’ – which, in an additional B-movie friendly twist, had its video directed by porn iconoclast/erotic thriller maven Gregory Dark.

Well, you’re kind of right: Camino Palmero was the street where Band and lead guitarist Aaron Kamen first met. But the strip of tarmac that heads north off Hollywood Boulevard before crossing Franklin Avenue is also the location of a remarkable property that was built by C. E. Toberman in 1922.

Toberman was often referred to as Mr. Hollywood, such was his influence in designing Tinseltown landmarks like The Hollywood Bowl, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the Roosevelt Hotel. But behind the imposing gates and towering greenery of 1847 Camino Palmero, lies a stunning ten-thousand square foot, nineteen room mansion, built in the Mission Revival style. Despite its grandeur and lavish grounds, it’s perhaps a little surprising that it hasn’t been used more regularly as a setting in either television or film. Aside from an occasional appearance in ‘80s TV stalwarts like Hunter and Strike Force, and a more pronounced presence as the home of Vinnie Chase in HBO’s Entourage, it’s been a rare sight on celluloid. That was, of course, until WHERE SLEEPING DOGS LIE.

This $1.8 million film was lensed on the estate by the twenty-eight-year-old Charles Finch, a British-born filmmaker whose late father, Peter, rests in a crypt only a mile or two away at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery. During production, Finch explained to David Wallace of the Los Angeles Times how the story, which he created with his mother, Yolande Turner, came about:

“Originally, Where Sleeping Dogs Lie was written as a script called ‘Imagination,’ one of the earlier things mummy and I wrote four or five years ago. It was a comedy about a young writer being forced to sell real estate. Eventually this rather whimsical story became a much more autobiographical one. He’s a screenwriter, a playwright, a writer. He comes here trying to make a living but can’t sell the kind of stories he wants to tell. The mechanics of surviving in the world are just too difficult to him.” [1]

Despite a heritage that suggests Finch being on a film set may only be due to the incredible legacy of his famous actor Dad, it must be said that he’s rarely found things easy. His debut film was the underseen Priceless Beauty (1988) which starred the rapidly loved-up couple of Christopher Lambert and Diane Lane. It fell afoul of producer interference; something which Finch looks back on with great regret:

“It was a total disaster. But I made every makeable mistake as a director. There is not one day that goes by without me thinking about that film. It cost me $196,000 – the only money I had – to try and [unsuccessfully] protect my cut of the film. It broke my heart. I cried for months.” [1]

As a sophomore effort, Where Sleeping Dogs Lie is unquestionably a far superior picture – despite numerous flaws. Dylan McDermott plays Bruce Simmons, a down-on-his-luck writer who’s both homeless, and under pressure from his agent and former lover (Sharon Stone) to write something more mainstream in order to bag a book deal. Simmons, though, is resolute in his determination to create the niche literary masterpiece that he feels he was born to compose. Barely keeping his day job in real estate, his boss gives him one last opportunity, which is to sell a decaying Hollywood residence that was once the scene of a barbaric murder. In doing so, he can move in there temporarily while he gets it in a saleable condition – and shortly after he does, he sneakily pockets $350 from a man by the name of Eddie Hale (Tom Sizemore) who’s keen to rent a room. The two hit it off, and Simmons surfs a wave of creativity by penning a grisly book about the notorious history of the dwelling – but during the writing process, he quickly becomes concerned that Hale might know more about the past of this abode than he’s letting on…

It’s a tantalising and ambitious story that teases a web of intrigue, and ultimately, it’s a level of promise that it doesn’t quite fulfil. That’s not to say Finch’s film isn’t worth a look. In terms of stumbling across it on cable TV late at night, it’s certainly worth persevering with, not least for Tom Sizemore, who delivers a brilliant performance as the mysterious tenant. Meek and subservient have been sparsely used characteristics in the burly actor’s career, but here he’s both of those with an added dose of abstruseness. McDermott, on the other hand, is nowhere near as enigmatic. Self-obsessed and static-faced, it’s impossible to find any empathy for the situation he finds himself in, and for the first half of the picture his morose demeanour makes it seem like a slog.

Having said that, there’s plenty of other aspects to keep your attention; be it a selection of fine cameos from the likes of Mary Woronov, Brett Cullen and Jillian McWhirter, or a classy score from Hans Zimmer. It’s Toberman’s house that seals it, mind, and the eye of acclaimed stills photographer Miles Cook as the film’s cinematographer enables Finch to offer scene upon scene of lavishly captured visuals that, at the bare minimum, ensures that this admirable failure is striking in its imagery.

USA ● 1991 ● Thriller ● 87mins

Dylan McDermott, Tom Sizemore, Sharon Stone ● Dir. Charles Finch ● Wri. Yolande Turner, Charles Finch

[1] They Won’t Let ‘Sleeping Dogs’ Lie: Fourteen Years After Actor Peter Finch’s Death, His Son and Ex-Wife Have Become a Director-Writer Team by David Wallace, Los Angeles Times, 30th December 1990

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