October 31, 2007
In 1989, a Briton by the name of Neil Gaiman took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring series of comic books. In 1991, a Briton by the name of Paul Berry took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring and terrifying stop-motion short.
The mythical Sandman brings sleep and good dreams to children by sprinkling sand on their eyelids to weigh them down. But in 1817, German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Der Sandmann, in which the Sandman's origins and purposes are far more sinister. Berry and producer Ian Mackinnon crafted their story around Hoffmann's vision, rooting the look of the ten-minute film in German Expressionism. Any symmetry to be found in The Sandman is accidental, and the shadows and moonlight serve to delineate the aquiline features of the title character and the haunted looks of the unnamed young boy and his mother.
Those three characters make up most of the cast of The Sandman; as the clock strikes eight, the boy is sent off to bed with only a lamp to guide him through the seemingly endless stairs of their Gothic house to his room. Every creak and every shadow is a new source of terror for the boy, who finally dives under his covers for sweet relief. But as he sleeps, the Sandman appears in his room, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The Sandman is entirely in pantomime, with barely-there incidental music accenting the creaks, groans, winds and other incidental sound effects that permeate the film with dread. The Sandman himself is a beautiful study in animated acting, as he gracefully stalks about the room, eventually leaping and dancing like a crazed bird of prey. His performance—for that matter, the entire film—is a textbook example of a medium perfectly suiting a story. At one point the Sandman is climbing the stairs and discovers a loose floorboard, prompting him to repeatedly lean into it, taunting the boy with its creaking. That scene, and the flashback it invokes in anyone who ever laid in bed and thought someone was coming to get them as a child, would never have worked without that sense of weight and tactility. Every moment of The Sandman takes advantage of stop-motion's grounding in reality, and uses it to present a fantastic and frightening scenario that everyone can relate to.
One note: if you're watching The Sandman for the first time, make sure to watch it through past the end credits for the one shot that will likely give you nightmares for the next week.
Where to find it: On the British Animation Classics Vol. 2 DVD.