Before I Wake (2018)

3 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This was not supposed to happen. A horror film released on the first weekend of January (and on Netflix, no less) is not supposed to be this thought-provoking. It’s not supposed to keep me wondering about this supernatural aspect or that origin of the central boogeyman in the story. But nevertheless, “Before I Wake,” directed by Mike Flanagan (the best horror director working today—see “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Gerald’s Game,” and even “Ouija: Origin of Evil”), is a horror film that could’ve been released on New Year’s Day, and it still would’ve been noticed as something good.

(Actually, this was originally supposed to be released theatrically in September 2016, on the same day as “The Disappointments Room” and “Blair Witch”…needless to say, I would have preferred seeing this horror film over either of those other two.)

Remember that “Twilight Zone” episode in which Bill Mumy was an odd child that could make his many wishes come true? Well, for young Cody (Jacob Tremblay, one of the best child actors working today), it’s the same principle—his dreams become reality. He goes to sleep, and the objects of his dreams manifest themselves physically. For instance, upon moving into the house of his new foster parents and learning about their long-lost son, the foster parents, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane), see their son right there in the living room as soon as Cody is asleep. But that’s not all—Cody is suffering trauma due to his mother passing away, seemingly taken away from him from a dark entity known as The Canker Man. So, just as his pleasant dreams become reality, so does The Canker Man.

I have to be honest and say that supernatural horror stories involving some kind of demonic presence are starting to bore me, mainly because it just seems ghosts & demons can just…do things. It doesn’t matter if it’s consistent or how much time passes in between hauntings or even what is the extent of their abilities. They just do…whatever they want. So, as “Before I Wake” was continuing, I didn’t care about what exactly The Canker Man was…until the final act, when we figure out what Cody has gone through before meeting his foster parents, and there’s a psychological twist that makes everything we’ve seen before a lot more interesting. I grow tired of over-the-top horror-movie climaxes, but this one had me intrigued. (No, I won’t give it away here.)

Mike Flanagan is a director who truly knows and love movies. He’s shown special talent in the horror genre, and it’s clear he’s not making these films simply to frighten or give us visceral reactions—he wants to tell stories with genuine characters and give us an effective thrill ride while we’re getting to know these people and admiring the craftsmanship as well. And even though The Canker Man is frightening, it’s where he comes from that makes his presence (and the film, by default) something to think about. And I give props to Flanagan for not giving us yet another weirdly-defined ghost/demon that can’t be explained.

Much of the film has to do less with scares and more with dealing with childhood phobias and coping with parental mistakes, as Cody has many skeletons in his closet even at the age of 8 and Jessie and Mark are struggling with the death of their own child while they have to care for this new boy in their home (Mark feels responsible for his son’s drowning in the bathtub). And I appreciated Flanagan’s methods in making it more than a standard horror film in which a child is scared by a random boogeyman. The film also brings interesting developments with Jessie, such as: if she can see her son when Cody sleeps, is she using Cody to continue fulfilling the wish of seeing him again, and how far will that go? (Mark, of course, knows better—this isn’t their dead son at all; it’s only Cody’s interpretation of their son, from what Cody saw in photos/videos of him.) This causes Jessie to think more about what it means to be a mother, especially when she does something that makes authorities see her as unfit to care for Cody.

“Before I Wake” has its flaws, such as narrative pacing issues, but its heart is in the right place, it had me guessing throughout and thinking afterward, and it is rather scary at times. “Before I Wake” is an effective horror film…I just wish I saw it back in September 2016. But it’s a good way to start the year 2018.

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