Bedtime Story: Dead Sleep (1990)

Dave looks at how Alec Mills, a respected fixture of the British film industry, got his sole directing jobs – even if they turned out to be less than stellar…

A veteran of the British film industry since the end of the ’40s, Alec Mills is best known as a stalwart of the James Bond movies. Beginning as a camera operator on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Mills eventually assumed the role of cinematographer during the franchise’s Timothy Dalton era, lensing both The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). After the latter wrapped, Mills was asked if he’d be interested in teaching at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Fast approaching sixty, and aware that his career could well be on the verge of coming to an end – particularly given advancing technology – Mills gave it careful consideration.

And then the phone rang.

It was producer Stanley O’Toole (The Boys from Brazil (1978), Outland (1981)), wondering if he’d fancy making his directorial debut at the ripe old age of fifty-nine – in Australia! The film was Bloodmoon (1990): a campus-bound slasher flick that peaks at just above mediocre. For Mills, the tight shoot and slim budget proved to be a challenge that he was capable of matching, and his professionalism certainly appeared attractive to O’Toole, who placed another call to into the filmmaker shortly after he got back to Blighty to see if he’d be up for round two.

DEAD SLEEP seemed like the same formula, certainly in terms of schedule and money – but for Mills there was a palpable difference in the working environment, which was something he spoke about in his autobiography:

“When I arrived at the studio, I was confronted with a disturbing change in policy; instead of the previous freedom given to me on Bloodmoon, all this had gone. Even more worrying was that the friendly atmosphere had changed, with unseen problems emerging in preproduction battles from which Stanley had previously shielded me.” [1]

If that wasn’t enough for Mills to contend with, he also had a famous lead actress to wrangle for the very first time. Bloodmoon had been an easily corralled ensemble of youth, but Dead Sleep had the mighty Linda Blair taking top billing. Thankfully, she was a welcome addition to the cast with Mills referring to her as co-operative and extremely professional. The Exorcist (1973) star was coming off the back of a handful of low budget projects, namely Chuck Vincent’s Bedroom Eyes II (1989), so she was very adaptable to the constraints of her latest setting.

In Dead Sleep Blair plays Maggie Healey: a nurse who’s recently had a successful interview to be accepted onto the staff at Elysian Fields Hospital. It’s a strange facility, with an area devoted to the controversial sleep sedation experiments of Dr. Jonathan Heckett (Tony Bonner). Dubbed the white knight of Australian psychiatry, Heckett’s smooth façade does little to prevent intense suspicion. And with Maggie’s concerns growing by the hour, her determination to discover the secrets behind coma-like episodes draws her down a perilous path of uncertainty.

Dead Sleep isn’t bad; it’s just not all that good. It’s a little too safe and conservative, and it cries out for a thigh-squeezing moment of flair or creativity. The absence of such makes it seem a bit flat, almost like a humdrum TV movie, which is a shame as there are elements that promise far more moments of the macabre than the picture ultimately delivers.

The hibernation room for one is very nicely designed. Subtly lit and sparsely decorated, it’s eerie and unsettling. Add to that Brian May’s pitch-perfect score and the thrill of aspects of Dead Sleep being rooted in reality, and you can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment towards how it turned out:

Not so much Ozploitation, but Ozploi-lame-tion.

Australia ● 1990 ● Thriller ● 90mins

Linda Blair, Tony Bonner, Andrew Booth, Christine Amor, Brian Moll ● Dir. Alec Mills ● Wri. Michael Rymer

U.S. video art courtesy of VHS Collector

[1] Shooting 007: And Other Celluloid Adventures by Alec Mills, The History Press, 2014.

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