DON'T GO TO SLEEP: the movie that will forever change the way you look at pizza cutters

On Friday April 15th at approximately 2:30pm, a Brooklyn man stabbed the owner of a local pizzeria.The incident took place just outside my son’s kindergarten classroom. The weapon was a kitchen knife from the pizzeria. This juxtaposition of pizza, children and attempted murder immediately reminds me of a great film. No, not I LOVE YOU TO DEATH, but the made-for-TV movie DON’T GO TO SLEEP.

The film centers on a suburban family suffering from one tragic accident after another. The parents (played by Dennis Weaver and Valerie Harper) struggle to move on, after their favorite daughter, Jennifer, died in a fire.  The accident deeply effected 12-year-old Mary (In terms of the most basic child psychology: Mary is “Jan” to Jennifer’s “Marsha”) I don’t want to reveal too much here, but long story short: Mary is traumatized and she grieves in her own unique way; by methodically killing off members of her family (including cult favorite Ruth Gordon and the boy from POLTERGEIST.)

The most memorable scene takes place on pizza night. Mary is given the privilege of cutting the pizza (under the condition that she be careful, since it is “VERY SHARP.”) Mary takes the circular utensil and slices the pizza with relish!  (That is to say Mary cuts enthusiastically. It is not a relish-pizza.  It’s a pie topped with pepperoni and spinach.)  The filmmakers delight in zooming in and playing waaay too much “cutting” sound effects as Mary grinds the blade back and forth, back and forth.

Once the dinner has been sliced to ribbons, Mary runs the round cutter onto the tiled kitchen countertop. We follow the utensil on a homicidal journey up the stairs.  The camera focuses solely on the greasy metal wheel as it creeps through the house, cutting along the counter, the walls and the wooden banister.  We hear music reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s PSYCHO score, cutting between close-ups of the blade and scenes of a hysterical Valerie Harper fumbling with the phone to call for help.  But the call is disconnected when the telephone wire is cut in two.

The scene is played to perfection by perky pre-teen actress Robin Ignico (one of the three finalists to star in the film version of ANNIE.) Her chirpy delivery is played with an eerie innocence.  The over-the-top performance becomes a chilling portrait of a homicidal killer wearing grotesque masks of sad-face, happy-face, scary-face. 

But the real power of the scene is the pizza cutter. Harry Houdini mesmerized audiences by combining the threat of death with everyday items (one of his most famous routines involved submerging himself inside an oversized milk can filled with water.)  The same is true of Mary’s weapon-of-choice.  After watching DON’T GO TO SLEEP my sister would re-enact the scene every time we had pizza.  (We stopped short of actually murdering our parents, and once we ever cut a phone line by mistake.) DON’T GO TO SLEEP might be dismissed as a “bad” movie, but it forever changed the way I look at pizza slicers.  How many other films can you say that about?

Come see DON'T GO TO SLEEP on the big screen with THE CHILDREN

Thursday July 7

92Y Tribeca, 200 Hudson Street, New York, NY 

two films for the price of one  (just ten bucks!) 

THE CHILDREN  (35mm print) 
When a school bus detours past a leaky nuclear-power plant, the pre-teen passengers transform into homicidal zombies with black fingernails. The children use their newly discovered nuclear powers to fry adults by hugging them to death! The ghoulish kid actors steal the movie; their hokey performances magnify the horror. You might find yourself rooting for the evil tweens as they stalk their obnoxious parents. Director Max Kalmanowicz invokes VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, while delicately balancing genuine terror with satiric edge. The low-budget creepfest features a haunting score by Henry Manfredini, who would replicate the music for the soundtrack to FRIDAY THE 13TH that same year.
Director: Max Kalmanowicz.  93 min. 1980.  35mm.

Aaron Spelling’s notorious made-for-TV movie pulls out all the stops: tweens in straight-jackets; killer pizza-cutters; death by pet lizard; and a hysterical Valerie Harper. Harper’s 12-year-old daughter Mary has been acting strange ever since the mysterious death of her family’s beloved older sister. One by one, Mary’s family members meet the most gruesome ends imaginable. The perky murderess is played to perfection by Robin Ignico (runner-up for the lead in the film version of ANNIE).  The movie co-stars Ruth Gordon, Dennis Weaver and Oliver Robins (the kid from POLTERGEIST).  See why  Kindertrauma website called it “Highly engrossing, admittedly campy, indisputable creepy, and nearly impossible to shake.”
Director: Richard Lang.  93 min.  1982 (Made for TV)

note: a version of the above essay originally appeared in volume 4 of "I Love Bad Movies"

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