Monday, November 25, 2019

"Expect Your Enemy Any Time, Any Place" - The Stay Awake (1988) - Film #162

For those audience members interested in combining a slasher movie with the 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life, The Stay Awake (1988) fits the bill nicely. The film introduces a supernatural killer with the ambitious goal of ravaging and, for some reason, marrying schoolgirls.

With such an original plot, I would expect your universe's critics to view The Stay Awake favorably. I would be wrong. Reviewer Shadow_Destiny writes, "I wish I never saw it! This movie is easily summed up in one word... Boring! The first hour or so of the movie is just a bunch of girls talking and goofing around." (How could such a thing be boring?) The next day, Shadow_Destiny posted another review of the same film, adding, "The only reason I would recommend this movie is if you are suffering from insomnia... because this movie WON"T make you stay awake!" On a related note, a reviewer with the name insomniac_rod writes, "Please avoid this one at all costs. There's nothing good about it..."

Continue reading to hear the truth about The Stay Awake...

The film begins artistically with the sound of a judge sentencing William John Brown to death for slaying and sexually assaulting 11 women in 1969. We watch as Mr. Brown walks along the traditional red shag carpeting to the gas chamber, clad in his prisoner’s dress shoes.

Mr. Brown flashes back to the frozen faces of his victim in various poses, one of whom, chillingly, lies beneath the tilted portrait of a sad clown.

In the chair, Mr. Brown laughs, saying, “You can’t kill me! I’m the Angel of Darkness!”

Then they kill him with gas.

The film cuts ahead 20 years to St. Mary’s School for Girls identified only as somewhere in Europe (though the school’s inhabitants all sport South African accents). A group of teenage girls aerobicizes as the camera creeps through a flowerbed and then bumps against the front door of the school. Eventually, the disembodied, demonic force reaches the gym where the girls are working out. The aerobics instructor, Samantha, complains, inaccurately, “You look like a bunch of stampeding elephants. You’ve got to feel the music. Let it flow through your bodies. Replace the blood in your veins with music.”

The girls are enjoying a stay awake, in which they are locked in the school overnight to raise money somehow for the school.

The dour Samantha begins insulting a skinny girl named Debbie: “Look at you. You’re fat. Gross.” When Debbie explains it’s due to puberty, Samantha says, “You wish, sweetheart.” She adds, “You’re gonna need a crane to move you around very soon.”

The boom box playing music cuts out, then explodes when Samantha examines it. The inside appears to be eaten through with acid...demonic acid.

For unexplained reasons, a woman drives to the school in the middle of the night and walks straight to the science lab, unaware she is being stalked by William John Brown in the form of a cloud of gas chamber gas.

Meanwhile, the schoolgirls are in the gym, watching a scary video on a TV we never see. The woman from the science lab, Miss Walton, sits down to watch the movie, but then she immediately stands up to find the headmaster in order to remind him to lock up the school.

Mr. Brown, still invisible, growls and makes a rat flash out of existence somehow.

When Miss Walton finds the headmaster, Mr. Stark, and explains there might be vandals afoot, Mr. Stark opens his cabinet and pulls out a shotgun. “If there’s anyone around that shouldn’t be, I’ll fix ‘em. Or scare the living daylights out of them, anyway.”

“The school is so secluded,” Miss Walton says. “What would vandals be doing out here?”

“One thing I learned in the Army, Miss Walton, that’s to expect your enemy any time, any place.” He walks her back to the gym, brandishing his weapon.

After Miss Walton returns to the gym and Mr. Stark leaves, Miss Walton is horrified to find the schoolgirls frozen on the floor. She screams, but soon finds out the girls were only playing some sort of game.

“Okay,” Miss Walton says, “Enough movies. How about a game of volleyball?”

Mr. Stark locks the school gates, remaining inside with his shotgun. He is unaware, however, of four boys who have driven to the school with unclear motives. They climb over a small brick wall.

In the gym, the girls attempt to play volleyball by swatting at a ball inexpertly. After a few minutes, Miss Walton says, “Okay, guys, let’s take our things and hit the showers.”

The girls are inordinately ecstatic at this suggestion. “Now you’re talking!” “Now this is more like it!”

When one of the girls stays behind in a dark corridor, the camera moves toward her, but when it sees her crucifix it pulls back in retreat.

In his room, Mr. Stark is annoyed when the television stops working. He smells a bad smell, and therefore aims his shotgun at the door, which flies open, revealing a blinding white light. Supernaturally, the shotgun flies out of the room. Then Mr. Stark screams as his heart is thrown against the wall and falls to the floor.

Back in the shower room, the girls coax a be-toweled Debbie to “give us a show.” Miss Walton grins dismissively at the prospect of the girl stripping in front of her friends—she might feel differently knowing that the four guys have gone directly to the window between the boiler room and the shower room to watch Debbie strip.

Returning to the gym, one of the girls says, “Now that the radio’s burnt out, let’s talk about something.”

Samantha, the aerobics leader, says, “Let’s talk about boys.”

They talk about boys in general terms for two or three seconds before Allison needs to go for a walk because she ate too many potato chips. Miss Walton makes her take Amy, who does not like boys, with her because the policy at the stay awake is for the girls to not go anywhere alone. However, Allison ditches Amy in one of the thousands of dark corridors in the school. Allison meets one of the boys and they start kissing.

In a chilling sequence, Amy hears a baby crying in another dark corridor. We see the POV of Mr. Brown’s ghost. Amy suddenly stumbles, and then we watch a winch (whose location is unclear) let out some firehouse, which wraps itself around poor Amy’s throat.

Amy screams. The girls in the gym hear something, but Miss Walton assures them everything’s all right.

“They say at twelve o’clock the ghosts and monsters start walking around,” one of the girls says.

As if on cue, Allison and her beau are attacked by a monster with red eyes. It kills the boy with its tentacles, then transforms into Mr. Brown, who advances on Allison.

Back in the gym, the girls grow worried Allison hasn’t come back, so they tell Miss Walton that Allison went with a college boy, explaining helpfully that “Since Allison had an abortion last year, her parents have forbidden her to see boys.”

Miss Walton is angry. “Don’t you realize that the people who vandalized my science class could be this boy called Jason. And maybe some of his friends.”

Miss Walton, perhaps unwisely, sends a few of the girls into the dark corridors to find Allison as well as her boyfriend. Miss Walton and the remaining girls sit quietly in the gym, watching a romantic video.

The monster returns and kills most of the boys while Miss Walton walks around the gym. Then the lights go out. Miss Walton says, “Now we’re all going to go look for the others.” The five of them stick together. They walk through the halls, saying the names of all the people who are missing.

They reach the corridor while Mr. Brown’s ghost makes baby noises. He attacks them, though we can’t see much of the attack. “It looks like a person’s head,” one girl says, though we don’t see the head in the dark. It turns out to be a gorilla mask from a play they are doing, The Jungle Book. (I’m not aware of any gorillas in The Jungle Book, though in your universe Kipling might have added them.)

Shockingly, the mask has a head in it. When they find it, the girls’ screams are intercut with Mr. Brown’s head, his eyes flashing orange.

Miss Walton and the girls run to find a phone while another girl runs in the opposite direction and is attacked elsewhere. As they hear her screams and want to help, Miss Walton must act as the sensible adult. “Help her against what? Can we help her? I don’t think so. All we can do is get to a phone and call for help. Come on.”

When they do find a phone, it explodes in a shower of sparks and melts.

Oddly, Miss Walton and the girls here Mr. Brown’s voice through the melting phone. “This has been John Brown. But you can call me the Angel of Darkness.”

Miss Walton, apparently having missed the last line of dialogue, says, “Who are you? What do you want? Why are you doing all this?”

“I was given new life to complete my task here on this fowl, stinking earth. I will ravage all the young girls, and you, my darling Trish, will be my favorite prize, for you wear the sign of our enemy. I must go now. I have a bride waiting for me. To plant the seed of evil deep within her.”

“Sounds like a psycho to me,” says one of the girls.

Miss Trish Walton is highly concerned. “I’m afraid he or it is far more than that. Our last chance is to go for the car. Let’s go.”

Elsewhere, the stranded girl is attacked by a burning outline of Mr. Brown.

Miss Walton and the girls reach the car but Mr. Brown supernaturally stops it and causes sparklers to appear in the front seat, forcing everyone out of the car.

“Okay,” Miss Walton says, “let’s get back inside.”

The car explodes.

Miss Walton tries to break into the sports equipment lockers by using a fire extinguisher. Miss Walton vows to defend the girls. “If I have to kill whatever it is with my bare hands, then I will.”

“We’ll take turns,” says one of the girls. (The Stay Awake might be the first horror film in which a group of schoolgirls vows to take turns killing a monster with their bare hands.)

Another adds, “We’re gonna be a team, right?”

“Right,” Miss Walton affirms. “And we’ll damn well win.”

The girls carry sports gear down a dark hallway. “Try to hit it with your javelin,” Miss Walton suggests.

“But I’ve never thrown one of these things before,” whines one of the girls.

Almost immediately, Mr. Brown appears in his monster form.

The girls throw javelins at the monster, wounding it. The girls run to the chapel while Miss Walton attacks the beast directly, though she slips at the last minute and the monster breaks her javelin. All she can do is run away.

Now wearing red for some reason, Miss Walton goes to her science classroom and writes COME AND GET ME on the chalkboard. She takes off her crucifix to lure Mr. Brown to her. In his monster form, he appears.

She attacks him with acid but he throws a desk in her direction, injuring her. Eventually, she uses the gas line feeding the science classroom to blow up the room, setting the monster on fire.

In the end, the sun rises on the school. All appears well, but we see a pair of orange eyes in the darkness.

The film ends with a romantic pop song whose lyrics I will transcribe in an effort to do them justice.

“You have come into my life
When I’ve needed you so bad
You have made my life complete
More than I have ever had
There have been so many times
When I called your name out loud
That I had to find a way
That would make you feel so proud.
When you came into my life
The light began to shine
And the dark was just a faded dream.
Now I’ve found a brand new day
And I can go on looking at the light.”

The sublime mysteries of The Stay Awake are what keep it at the forefront of cinematic discussion even today, over 30 years after its release. How did William John Brown attain his powers? Why did he allow (like Shocker's Horace Pinker and The Horror Show's Meat Cleaver Max, if I remember correctly) the American justice system to execute him? Why is there shag carpeting on Death Row? What is a "stay awake," anyway, and how does it raise money for charity? Why do all the students and faculty at a European girls' boarding school have South African accents? Why does Mr. Brown make baby noises when the girls are nearby? And, most of all, why does Mr. Brown reappear after his execution so far away? Is it because Miss Walton is the only teacher in the world who regularly wears a crucifix? All these questions and more are not answered by the film, which leaves the audience with a satisfying sense of wonder and curiosity.