Funny Sandman scores with clever camp

By WilliamPrentiss

Strange. That’s the first word that comes to mind after watching Eye of the Sandman.

The film’s 72 minutes includes a handful of characters, transmutation, eye patches and mad doctors fighting over a newly inherited mansion, all while pulling off a wedding. The protagonist’s father, Dr. Coppelius, passed away under mysterious circumstances and Cecilia, his daughter, arrives at the start of the film with her fiancée, Clark, to stake her claim. The house is appropriately spooky, and they soon meet the mysterious Dr. Spalanzani, Cecilia’s father’s old partner. If that set-up sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The film is a reworking of the German short story “Der Sandmann” by E.T.A. Hoffman and cribs much of its atmosphere from older Vincent Price horror movies. The movie wears its influences on its sleeve, but tweaks them into something original with its interesting characters and a winning sense of humor.

Dr. Spalanzani meets the engaged couple to stake his claim on the mansion, and appears like a specter who talks with an agreeably menacing timbre. Throughout the film, the director repeatedly inserts Dr. Spalanzani into scenes like a blunt instrument. Characters may be sitting under a tree in a clearly open patch of yard, but Dr. Spalanzani will somehow appear next to them without rustling a single leaf. The effect feels more like a punch line to an unspoken joke rather than a ratcheting up of tension. He plays the archetype well and the writer manages to make his character stand out beyond the cliché by giving him a strong dose of humanity. Indeed, the same can be said for the rest of the characters. They’re well-defined with their own issues and oddities, which get addressed through the course of the movie’s brief run-time.

The acting is purposely cheesy (sometimes painfully so), the effects are low-tech, the lighting is dark and the music is sparse. The film charmingly handles its shaggy production, but doesn’t completely get away with some of its more obvious transgressions. It crosses the line from campy to bad at some points. There are not enough of them to ruin the viewing experience, but they become an issue when the movie hits its climax. Watching a carrot being driven into someone’s eye socket sounds like it should be queasily entertaining, but it’s not when the vegetable is obviously nowhere near the ocular cavity.

These faux pas are redeemed, however, with inspired bouts of lunacy. Dr. Spaz’s wig alone will give viewers a good laugh. Other things to look for: Cecilia’s multitude of eye patches, an inspired dance number featuring frequent costume changes, one terribly good flashback and the raw emotion of Dr. Spalanzani’s “son” Olimpio. Olimpio’s dialogue consists mostly of grunts, but he uses them to great effect.

As a whole, Eye of the Sandman is a good movie. It can feel a little uneven and veers toward the bad side of campy at times, but the sum of its parts makes it a unique experience. The characters are fully fleshed out, but play to their archetype with a wink and a nod. The dialog is clever and handled with equal doses of melodrama and sincerity. There’s even dancing for musical theater fans who feel left in the cold. Compared to big Hollywood productions with little substance and lots of bang, it stands well. Its eccentricities make the viewing experience memorable, and the story being told is more interesting than most big-budget horror movies.