For a movie fan, nothing is juicier than lying in bed at night, afraid to fall asleep because you just watched a movie about people who were afraid to fall asleep. For me, my first encounter with this phenomenon was the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel.
Appropriately enough, this 1956 classic about alien seedpods replicating human beings in their sleep was almost titled Sleep No More by the studio, since the film’s protagonists, Miles and Becky—played with indelible black-and-white earnestness by Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter—spend much of the film trying to stay awake.
Spoiler alert—Becky doesn’t make it.
On the run and terrified, she finally snoozes in Miles’s arms, and is instantly replaced by an alien duplicate. This leads to one of the film’s best bits of narration: “I’ve been afraid a lot of times in my life, but I didn’t know the real meaning of fear until … until I kissed Becky.”
Fear, as it turns out, is a major theme in the very best sleep-themed movies.
In Dustin Hoffman’s 1976 thriller Marathon Man—directed with manic intensity by John Schlesinger—a grad student named Babe (Hoffman) gets mixed up in a plot by a sadistic Nazi (Lawrence Olivier), who plans to sell diamonds stolen from the victims of Auschwitz. An avid marathon runner, Babe spends much the film (literally) one step ahead of the bad guys, too afraid to slow down, let alone to stop and sleep. Famously, after filming a scene in which Babe has not slept for three days—made more authentic since the “method” championing Hoffman had stayed up all night (partying, according to Hoffman)—Olivier jokingly suggested that he should “try acting, dear boy.”
Acting wasn’t the attraction with Wes Craven’s game-changing horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the classic 1984 B-movie, the spirit of murderous Freddy Krueger starts killing off the teenage kids of the neighborhood lynch mob who once killed him. Since he only exists in nightmares, he has to wait till his victims fall asleep. In one of the film’s most audacious scenes, a young Johnny Depp decides the best way to stay awake is to listen to some tunes on his headphones while lying on his bed.
Since the stupid kids always get killed in movies like this, you know that poor pre-Pirates Johnny is going to get it—and he does. He finally falls asleep, and before he’s hit his second snore, monstrous hands reach up out of the bed and pull him inside, headphones, stereo and all. Seconds later … well, it’s too grisly to report what happens, but it involves what sounds like an enormous Cuisinart, and that’s the end of Johnny. At least, all in one piece.
In all of those films, people are trying to stay awake, but in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 suspense film Insomnia, Al Pacino just wants to go to sleep. An L.A. cop hunting a serial killer (Robin Williams) in a northern Alaskan town, Pacino can’t deal with the whole midnight sun thing, and unable to catch any quality shut-eye, his mind starts to play tricks on him. For one thing, he keeps thinking he’s in a movie where Williams is giving a really good performance (which, these days, seems to only happen in our dreams).
So Pacino basically goes nuts.
The queen of all sleep-themed movies, of course, is Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Artfully crafted, the old-fashioned animation is so captivating we never bother to ask the most important question: “How does Sleeping Beauty go to the bathroom?”