Sheridan LeFanu's Sleep of Death

Sweden is full of surprises.

Here's an example of what I mean: in early 1990, Swedish and Hungarian Foreign Trade Bureaus got together and opened a business in Budapest. The business they started was a pizza place.

On the face of it, it seems a little ridiculous: the Swedes and the Magyars collaborating on an Italian restaurant. It sounds like the setup to a bad ethnic joke. In fact, it was a very clever thing to do: at the time, pizza was a rare, exotic delicacy in Hungary, so the restaurant became very popular. The venture was also well timed, as Hungary had just got rid of the Communist government, and was opening up to foreign markets. Thus the restaurant was able to achieve a notable success some 2 years before Pizza Hut invaded the country.

So, bearing this in mind, what do you think you get when you pair the Swedes and the Irish in a business partnership?

Horror films, of course!

In the mid-70's, just as The Exorcist was exerting an unfortunate influence on Continental horror movies, director Calvin Floyd and a mixed Swedish-Irish cast and crew made a pair of fascinating films: Victor Frankenstein (1975) and Sleep of Death (1978). Both were based on classic literature, the first (obviously) based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the other on The Room at the Dragon Volant by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu. Both films approached their source material with a great deal of respect, and took a restrained, understated approach. Neither film is particularly well-known, and being so low-key, neither is likely to inspire a large and vocal following. To horror fans accustomed to European horror of this period -- from the violent stylistic exercises of the Italians, to the broad, colorful Spanish monsterfests, to the dark, poetic creations of French director Jean Rollin -- these two films may seem unbearably prosaic.

But both films are much better than their reputations (or lack of reputations) suggest. They succeed on sincerity rather than imagination, and rely on inner conflict more than on blood-curdling horror. They reward the patient viewer with strong stories faithfully adapted, decent actors, and excellent use of period costumes and locations.

Victor Frankenstein, or Terror of Frankenstein as it is known on TV, video and DVD, has a few admirers, and has at least been available in one format or another for many years. I'm more interested in discussing the second film, Sleep of Death, which has remained much more obscure. Any adaptation of source material as famous as Frankenstein is likely to attract some attention, but an adaptation of a much less familiar work must struggle to find its audience.

If Sheridan LeFanu is remembered today, it is mostly for Carmilla, which has probably served as a loose inspiration for more vampire movies than any work of literature except Dracula. But (in my opinion, anyway) LeFanu was a far better writer than Bram Stoker. His stories of the uncanny often dealt with physical or emotional parasitism, with the vampire Carmilla being the most obvious example; in spite of the more gruesome elements of the story, it's the spiritual and emotional aspects of Carmilla's vampirism that hold the story's real horror.

LeFanu also excelled in creating a sense of inescapable doom. In several of his stories and novels, including Uncle Silas and The Room at the Dragon Volant, a young innocent gradually becomes aware that he or she is a helpless prisoner of the people he or she has most trusted. In others, like Mr. Justice Harbottle, the consequences of a man's misdeeds eventually crowd in on him in a most unpleasant fashion. In these stories, LeFanu creates an overwhelming sense of confinement and despair. The cruel psychological games played on LeFanu's protagonists are as merciless and horrifying as any of the physical tortures of Sade, but the key difference is that LeFanu almost always presents his stories from the sufferer's point of view. All through his life, LeFanu was plagued by a recurring dream in which he was trapped in a collapsing house; many of his stories have a similar sense of claustrophobic terror.

In Sleep of Death, the innocent victim is Robert, a naïve young English gentleman. In 1815, a few years after the defeat of Napoleon, Robert yearns to take a trip to Paris. He's stumbled on a "method" with which he hopes to beat the casinos at roulette. His father is adamant that he not waste his life gambling and endangering his life in the chaos of France. In fact, his father has arranged his marriage to a particularly lumpish young lady, who butchers a Mozart Sonata for us in one of the film's only truly horrifying scenes.

When his father suddenly dies, Robert is free to do as he wishes. Accompanied by his faithful Irish servant, Sean, he voyages to France to make his fortune. On the road to Paris, Robert's coach is forced off the road by another, larger coach, bearing a crest of a dragon in flight. As the larger coach pulls away, Robert catches sight of a beautiful young woman inside. Entranced, Robert follows at top speed, in spite of the damage to his own vehicle.

Robert follows the mysterious woman's coach to a country inn called "L'Étoile". As he wanders through the Inn with feigned disinterest, he happens to wind up the rooms of the people from the coach, where the woman confronts him. The encounter leaves Robert even more entranced by the beautiful woman. Shortly afterwards, Robert is approached by the strange Marquis d'Harmonville (played by the wonderful Irish actor Patrick Magee), who claims he had known Robert's father. The Marquis smoothly manipulates the young man into traveling with him to Paris.

Robert asks the Marquis if he knows the identity of the mysterious woman. The Marquis replies that she is the Countess de Saint Alyre, traveling with her husband the Count. He admits he knows the Count only slightly, but he understands the Countess is not a happy woman... Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Count and Countess into the Inn's dining room. All at once, a wild-looking man in a soldier's uniform draws his sword and confronts the expressionless Count. The Marquis tells Robert that this is Colonel Gaillarde; the Marquis mentions with distaste that the Colonel was a mere peasant, who rose through the ranks after the revolution. Now he is rumored to be mad, as a result of a head wound... combined with his bitterness over the failure of the revolution, and his hatred of the returning aristocracy.

The Colonel is particularly incensed because he was certain the Count de Saint Alyre had died in the Bastille over 20 years before. As he threatens the stolid Count, Robert leaps on him and knocks him out. The Count and Countess leave the Inn in a rush, the Countess pausing to give Robert a single white rose. The Marquis suggests that Robert travel on to Paris immediately with him, while Sean stays behind to fix the carriage.

Late that night, Sean goes to keep a tryst he's arranged with a pretty chambermaid. To his horror, he finds her dead in her bed, with her throat torn out. The next morning, the Colonel asks him some pointed questions about the disappearance of his master and the Marquis. Sean stammers his innocence of the vampire-like killing, but the Colonel sneers that he has a pretty good idea what's really going on...

In Paris, meanwhile, Robert has really been doing well with his scheme to break the bank at the Casino. As he is enjoying his winning streak, he sees a veiled woman who resembles in every respect the Countess de Saint Alyre... until she raises her veil. Then Robert sees that she is really a withered old woman. When he explains his apparent mistake to the Marquis, the elder gentleman mentions that he has been invited to a masked ball close to the ancestral home of the Saint Alyres. He says he has little interest in going -- at which point, as expected, the still-smitten Robert pleads with him to go and take him as his guest.

On their way to the party, the Marquis and Robert pass by the ruins of the Saint Alyres' mansion. The house and grounds were confiscated during the Revolution, and now the impoverished family is struggling to buy back the estate. According to local legend, says the Marquis, there are ghosts and vampires living in the abandoned cemetery. Moving on, they come to an Inn called the Dragon Volant, named for the Saint Alyre family crest.

Robert and the Marquis attend the party dressed as Hamlet and Polonius. As they arrive, Robert is given a message that the Saint Alyres wish to see him privately. Excited, the young man goes to the Saint Alyre's chamber. The Count and the strange old woman wait for him in a shadowy room; as Robert arrives, the old woman disappears into the shadows. Robert is obviously disappointed to find the Countess is not there. The Count gives him perfunctory thanks for helping him evade the Colonel, and then leaves him.

The bewildered young man returns to the Marquis, who suggests that he amuse himself by visiting the Chinese Fortune Teller who has just arrived in a palanquin. The Marquis says that fortune teller has been a hit at every masked ball, yet no one knows who he is or how he knows so much about the pasts and futures of everyone he meets. Robert climbs into the palanquin to speak to the masked fortune teller. The magician tells him that someone loves him secretly... and then removes the mask to reveal the young and beautiful Countess de Saint Alyre! Robert vows to meet the Countess later, and help her escape from her cruel husband.

The next morning, Colonel Gaillarde arrives, on the trail of Robert and the Saint Alyres. He finds the fortune teller's palanquin, but inside it, dressed in the fortune teller's robes and mask, is a dead man -- and his throat has been torn out.

Robert is in store for some very creepy developments. There will be a midnight meeting in a stone ruin; some secret passages to navigate in the dead of night; more meetings with the enigmatic Colonel Gaillarde, who isn't the madman he appears to be; and some unpleasantness involving a narcotic known as Somnus Angelorum, the Sleep of the Angels -- also known as the Sleep of Death.

The film brings to life almost all the important events of the original story. However, it also adds some very interesting elements, some borrowed from other LeFanu stories. in the end, it actually improves on the original story in a number of ways:

First of all, the fate which waits for Robert (Richard in the story) is horrible enough in LeFanu's version. The film keeps the essential motive for the terrible plan, but adds a new dimension of ghastliness by emphasizing the 'vampire' plot, which is barely hinted at in the story. In Floyd's film, Gaillarde is given a much more active role in uncovering the real activities of the Saint Alyres. He also brings to them a different, somehow more satisfying kind of justice than LeFanu describes.

Next, they fleshed out Colonel Gaillarde's role still further by giving him a more intriguing back-story, revealed at the end of the film. The details are mostly based on some remarks made by the Chinese fortune teller in the story. In the movie, when we find out the real connection between the Colonel and the Countess, it suddenly becomes clear why he has done the things he has.

What he does afterwards, on the other hand, is puzzling. As in the story, the Countess escapes with her life, but no explanation is given for the Colonel's change of heart. It could be because he has seen something in the old temple that has shaken him. There may be a reason why the Countess and the veiled old woman are never seen together. There may be a reason why the Countess seems not to have aged in 25 years. There's no question that she's a monster; the only question is... what kind of monster is she?

I think it's the movie's firm refusal to explain away all its secrets that left me most impressed. However, aside from its deadpan visual style, I can really only think of one aspect of the film that I didn't like... and that's the overdone, out-of-place synthesizer soundtrack. Sleep of Death is one of those movies in which the musical score is not only all wrong for the mood of the film, it's also irritating and impossible to ignore. Aside from this, though, the movie is a gem. It's very difficult to find right now, and is never likely to win widespread distribution; but if you ever get a chance, it's worth making an extra effort to see it.

In the meantime, you can always read the story!

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