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Halloween (2018)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

40 years ago, we got John Carpenter’s 1978 classic “Halloween,” a truly scary low-budget thriller about a killer that continued to lurk in the dark and stalk (and kill) unsuspecting teenagers. It was scary because it represented the looming presence of fate and death and ended on a chillingly ambiguous note: that evil is still out there and while we can evade it for some time, it can still come for you at any time…

Since then, there have been countless sequels (including one that tried a different story—“Halloween III”), neither of which I can recommend. (It was also remade in 2007 by Rob Zombie; I can’t recommend that one either.) And now, in 2018, we get a sequel that pretends all of the other sequels don’t exist. It’s a “Halloween” sequel, directed by talented filmmaker David Gordon Green, that’s directly following the original film 40 years later.

Already, we’re off to a good start…though simply giving it the same title as the original is confusing. (I get that they can’t call it “Halloween II,” because there were already two movies by that name…but now, there are three movies titled “Halloween”!)

The killer, Michael Myers, is no longer the brother of survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He’s simply Michael Myers, an enigmatic figure that stalks and kills—the “boogeyman,” if you will. Four decades after killing a few people in Haddonfield, Illinois (actually, he’s killed more people if you include “Halloween II”…but they’re not including it, so I won’t either), Michael Myers has been institutionalized and studied long since then. Meanwhile, survivor Laurie has led a life of ruin and misery since then—she’s a nutty survivalist, living in a fortress-like secluded house, carrying a ton of armory hidden underneath, and obsessing over the possibility that Myers will escape and come for her and finish what he started.

That’s a very slim possibility, especially after 40 years of Myers being locked up and Laurie continuing to wait for him. But if he didn’t somehow escape, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? Anyway, he escapes a bus filled with other mentally ill prisoners and makes his way back “home”…

And of course this happens on the night before Halloween, so that Myers can come to Haddonfield and stalk new victims on Halloween night!

In the process of Myers’ lurking and killing, we get some neatly executed horror moments, such as how he retrieves his infamous mask and when he walks through a suburban neighborhood filled with trick-or-treaters. And we also get some nice, funny moments too, such as when one of Myers’ potential victims reassures the boy she’s babysitting that everything’s fine when the kid knows better. (That kid, played by Jibrail Nantambu, is an absolute riot—I wish he had more screen time!) But we also get a lot of uninteresting moments too, particularly with Laurie’s teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her friends (Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, and Drew Scheid) who we all know are generic teens lined up to be stalked, killed, or both.

Oh, and there’s also the creepy Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), the psychiatrist who looked after Myers long after Dr. Loomis (the doctor from the original, played by the late Donald Pleasance). Where he falls into this story is as uninteresting as it is blatantly odd (and random).

However, as we learn, the film isn’t really about them. It’s about Laurie’s chance at closure, getting a chance to fight back at the one that’s the cause of her turmoil and misery for four decades. (Though, I think she got off easy, as her friends were murdered forty years ago, while she survived—but I think you could call that “survivor’s guilt.”) We saw something like this in “Halloween H20,” in which Laurie fought Michael 20 years after the original incident, but it was merely a glimpse. This “Halloween” sequel delves deeper into the concept of “victim empowerment,” and it leads to a neatly executed final act in which Laurie has to protect her granddaughter, as well as her daughter (well-played by Judy Greer), and ultimately face her foe as an avenging angel. The roles are reversed this time—originally, Myers was the hunter, but now, Laurie is. What results is a climactic final act that is both fun and suspenseful.

For all the moments in “Halloween (2018)” that don’t work, there are still plenty of other moments that really do. Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green and his collaborators, one of whom was John Carpenter himself—they know how to shoot the horrific moments and keep the tension flowing, and I appreciate the new direction they were willing to take this story, while paying callbacks to the original that don’t feel forced. (One callback in particular made me smile—it involved one character looking down below at another in a similar way at the end of the original. That’s all I’ll say about it.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the most interesting character, which makes almost everyone else hardly relevant outside of playing “dead meat,” but it just makes every moment she appears on-screen more special because it’s building up to something big with her. And I like that producer Jason Blum (of Blumhouse Productions, which mostly specializes in horror films) was able to add a modern spin on the popular Halloween franchise, so that modern terrors and old-school suspense combine for an effective horror film. “Halloween (2018)” is the “Halloween” sequel I was waiting for. Do I wish there was a little less predictability with many of the side characters? Yes. But considering all the other “Halloween” sequels that this particular one ignores, I’ll take what I can get.

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Baghead (2008)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Baghead,” written and directed by brothers Jay & Mark Duplass, is an independent film that is both made on the cheap and delightfully aware of how cheap it is. It even opens with our main characters attending a film festival, where a micro-budget short film screened and its director gloats about his limited resources in making the film, right down to having his actors improvise their dialogue rather than provide them with a completed script… That is almost exactly how the Duplass Brothers managed to make “Baghead.”

This style of micro-budget filmmaking is commonly known as “mumblecore,” but if you listen to the Duplass Brothers’ audio commentary for the film, you’ll learn they don’t particularly care for that term.

Our main characters in “Baghead,” desperate actors looking to star in something, are inspired by this filmmaking method that they decide to rent a secluded cabin (in the woods, of course) and come up with a screenplay for a low-budget indie film in which they will all star. When they’re not working on ideas for the script, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Catherine (Elise Miller), and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) do all the typical things young people do when they have a weekend to themselves in a cabin in the middle of nowhere—they get drunk, get high, pal around, go swimming, and then eventually collaborate on ideas. One night, Michelle has a nightmare about a killer with a bag over his head (a “baghead” killer, if you will), and this inspires Matt to write a horror script about this very concept.

What happens next requires a leap of faith the Duplass Brothers had to take for their audience to continue watching “Baghead” all the way to the end. It seems there really is a baghead lurking outside in the woods. In the film’s creepiest scene, he appears in Michelle’s room and watches as she flirts with who she thinks is Matt playing a game…and he just stands there, watches, and leaves. No one is sure whether it’s one of the four playing games or if there really is a stalker outside watching them…and with a bag over his head. What are the odds that there would actually turn out to be a baghead appearing around the same time these people start to write a script that features a baghead? Well, I won’t give away how this came to be, but it will either make or break the film for most people. It didn’t break it for me; if anything, it added more creativity than anything else.

“Baghead” has a wonderful amount of self-awareness, with art imitating life imitating art, as it comments on the world of filmmaking (particularly micro-budget filmmaking, in which “Baghead” belongs). The Duplass Brothers clearly love to create art and will do whatever it takes to do it with whatever they have. And they get clever mileage out of how they comment on how they even make their own film within said-film.

Of all four main actors, who were previously second-tier actors, only one managed to make it in the big time: Greta Gerwig. At the time, Gerwig was known for several films of this sort (she became known as “the Mumblecore Queen”) before she managed to break out, get more roles in bigger-budgeted indie films (at least, in comparison to “mumblecore” films) and mainstream movies, and even get recognition from Oscar for her directorial debut “Lady Bird.” But she started out with a bubbly, quirky personality that differentiated her from several of her peers. (Many critics had a problem with that—one of the critics of “Baghead” called her “fingernails-on-the-blackboard awful.”) I think she’s a delight in “Baghead”—not to slam her three co-stars, but Gerwig is the true star of the film. She’s funny and charming throughout the whole film.

Much of the film is improvised heavily, with many awkward pauses as the characters try to figure out what to say to one another and find ways to make it feel as real as possible. While it is grating at times, I admire the effort to insert realism into the mix. (That’s generally what “mumblecore” is all about—making the most out of minimal material.) The clumsy handheld camerawork adds to it as well. Though, I will say a lot of what the characters say is not particularly interesting, and I’m constantly waiting for something more juicy to come along and break the monotony. I do care about whether or not Chad and Michelle will end up together, but I’m not sure I needed the passive-aggressiveness of a potential love-triangle to make things more complicated.

I have yet to mention the tension that comes with the very real possibility that there is a baghead walking around outside, leading to a “Blair Witch” style of a sequence that leads to our characters roaming through the woods in fear. By that point, I was comfortable with the way the film was going. The Duplass Brothers were able to milk tension out of the simplest situations, and it truly works.

“Baghead” is essentially a low-budget horror-comedy, and the Duplass Brothers clearly had fun making it. Many people will have trouble with the final twist in the final act, but I didn’t really have much of a problem with it. I was simply appreciative that they didn’t go for any of the easier ways out of a bind.

The Gotham Knights Event – Part One – All That’s Left (Short Film)

14 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s been years since I reviewed a short film…here goes.

We’ve seen many incarnations of Batman the Dark Knight of DC Comics, from silly & campy to dark & complex. Then we get a chance to see fans (who are also micro-budget filmmakers) do their own take on it, creating a nonprofit fan-made web series called “Gotham Knights.”

Available on YouTube*, “Gotham Knights,” created by CK Helms and Timothy Drennan, is a slickly made, enjoyable series of short films centered around characters based on the DC Comics characters—Bruce Wayne (Batman), Dick Grayson (Robin), the Joker, the Red Hood, and more. Picking up where the series’ 4 previous shorts left off, we have Part One of a new story, titled “The Gotham Knights Event.” Batman has been missing for a couple of years, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson are trying to live normal lives while struggling with grief, and the Joker has returned to Gotham. Those are the basic essentials for the story so far. Part One, titled “All That’s Left,” is merely a setup for something bigger to come. There isn’t much I can say about it, except to say whether or not it had me interested enough to want to see the rest of the oncoming series. And did it?

Thankfully, the answer is “Yes.” I enjoyed “All That’s Left,” though the element I enjoyed in particular was the actor playing the Joker: the film’s director himself, Timothy Drennan. When he’s first introduced here, there’s a quick moment in which he murders a henchman midway through playing friendly towards him—in that moment alone, Drennan captured the spirit of the Joker and carried it through the rest of the film. (I replayed that part repeatedly, I thought it was so funny.) Wherever the story goes from this point, I’m willing to follow.

Much of the film involves Dick (Ryan Mullins) and Barbara (Sarah Ring) as they discuss where they are in their own lives and how they can work together for the future. It’s not particularly interesting, but it’s only Part One; maybe it’ll get better. (Though, further considering the ending “All That’s Left” goes with, I can almost guarantee it will be more interesting, whether I know what happens or not.)

“Gotham Knights” is basically “Batman” with a small budget. There’s definitely passion put into each episode, and that passion continues with “The Gotham Knights Event.” It’s what makes the series interesting and fun to watch, and I’ll be interested to see what comes next, in Part Two…

*The Gotham Knights YouTube channel can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFiLCqpUd-3GlCb4cl4KhtQ

Love, Simon (2018)

8 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Simon” is an important step for a mainstream comedy-drama to take: about the struggles of a closeted gay high-school teenager. We’ve seen quite a few indie films about the subject, and there were also some mainstream high-school dramedies with LGBT supporting characters (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Power Rangers”). But “Love, Simon,” based on Becky Albertalli’s YA novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” is the first wide-theatrical-release teenage comedy that focuses on what a homosexual teen goes through when he considers coming out to his loved ones.

Sexual orientation aside, this character finds love in unexpected places, which is generally what happens in conventional teen films. But like other conventional teen films, “Love, Simon” has a lighthearted tone. It plays the material safe with a cheerful, uplifting feel. At first, I didn’t know how to feel about it, now that I know how difficult it must be for real-life closeted teens to keep their true selves hidden out of fear of being isolated or worse. “Love, Simon” doesn’t ignore how hard it is for a gay kid to come out, but it doesn’t entirely play for realism either. But the more I thought about other films that cover teenage struggles (“Juno” with teenage pregnancy, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with mental disorders, “The Fault in Our Stars” with cancer, etc.), I realized those films played it more or less safe with those real issues too. And “Love, Simon” is charming and likable for the same reasons the other films are charming and likable.

(Besides, there’s a film coming out this fall, called “Boy Erased,” that’s probably going to deal with darker, more realistic themes about a gay teen coming out. If we’re going to have that, why complain about this?)

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer,” “Jurassic World”) stars in a winning performance as Simon Spier, your average suburban high-school senior with loving parents (Josh Duhamel & Jennifer Garner), a nice little sister (Talitha Bateman), and three good friends (Leah, played by Katherine Langford; Nick, played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.; and Abby, played by Alexandra Shipp). He has an enormous secret he’s not ready to tell anybody yet: he’s gay. He’s known it for quite a while now (ever since his “Harry Potter” bedroom poster gave him his awakening), but he confides in a secret email buddy, simply labeled “Blue,” about when would be the right time to tell anybody and risk messing up a life he loves. Blue is an anonymous classmate who is also gay and not ready to come out, and so, Simon and Blue communicate often, not letting on their real identities to each other (Simon calls himself “Jacques”).

But things go wrong when an obnoxious classmate, Martin (Logan Miller), discovers one of Simon’s emails to Blue and uses it to blackmail him in an attempt to get closer to Abby, whom he has a crush on. This results in numerous misunderstandings and confusing moments that cause Simon’s friends to wonder what’s really going on, while Simon is still trying his best to keep his secret until the time is right for him. But Martin isn’t making things any easier.

This character of Martin is utterly hateful, but he’s also all too real. We’ve seen this particular pathetic social outcast in high school (maybe we even were that character in high school, and we just didn’t know it). He’s pushy, kind of a bully, looking for friends in the wrong places, and obnoxious as a result. With that said, the problem with the character isn’t necessarily with him (though some of his actions are a bit forced, in order to keep the story flowing)—it’s that the things he does late in the film, which are inexcusable and make you hate him even more, have no repercussions. There are two side characters who perform a homophobic prank which results in a great verbal takedown by a teacher played by the very-funny Natasha Rothwell—couldn’t Martin have gotten the same treatment by this teacher? I would have loved to see this little turd get some kind of comeuppance.

The strengths of “Love, Simon” come from Simon’s interactions with his family and his friends. Once you know that he has this big secret, it makes those scenes intriguing to watch, because you know he’s testing these people, making sure they’re going to stay true to him if he stays true to them. With that in mind, the already-immensely-likable Simon earns more of the audience’s sympathy. We want him to find happiness, we want him to be comfortable with himself as well as with other people, and we also want him to find out who Blue is. That’s another strength with “Love, Simon”: finding out who Blue is. Is it the cool guy from the Halloween party? Is it the cute guy who works at Waffle House? Is it the sweet, sensitive guy from drama class? It’s a nice mix of mystery and comedy that keeps the film going in a tender direction.

I think everyone who hasn’t seen the film knows that by the end of the film, Simon’s secret is out. I won’t reveal everything that happens here, but I will say that the way the aftermath is handled is very effective. We get to see how everyone feels about it, and we see the differences from the opening act to the third act, and it’s handled very maturely. (Well, for the most part, it’s handled maturely—the film doesn’t go too far in the darker, more realistic territory when it comes to something like this.)

And then comes the question of whether or not heterosexual audience members, particularly teenage ones, will gain something from “Love, Simon.” I’d say so. Simon is an average teen with things in his life to feel good about and other things to be very uncertain about, and those latter things are kept inside for so long. So many teens can relate to that. And one of the best things about the final act of “Love, Simon” is that it addresses that. Simon has an important line near the end, “No matter what, announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying.” And that about sums it up.

Creep 2

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A few years ago, indie filmmakers Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass went out to the woods to make a movie with their limited resources. What resulted was “Creep,” an effectively creepy (forgive the pun) found-footage movie starring Duplass as an unsettlingly peculiar individual whom Brice isn’t sure whether or not to trust. I would issue a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you’re the slightest bit interested in seeing “Creep 2,” then you probably already know how “Creep” ended. It’s no secret going into “Creep 2” that Duplass’ titular “creep” character is no mere weirdo; he’s a serial killer.

Part of the fun of the original “Creep” was trying to figure out just what was up with this strange man (Duplass) whose company our protagonist (Brice) is stuck with throughout the movie. He’s clearly not well, he has a lot of issues, he says/does things that are unnerving, and it gets worse and worse until it ultimately ends violently, thus finally revealing that it was all a setup for one of the “creep’s” filmography that involves murders. “Creep” is one of the killer’s movies about his individual killings, and now we have “Creep 2.”

(Whew. That one paragraph saved me the trouble of reviewing “Creep.” For the record, I give it the same rating as “Creep 2”: three stars out of four.)

Now that we know Mark Duplass’ character is a psychopathic murderer with creative ambition, where do we get suspense in this sequel? Well…what if our protagonist was an unsuspecting amateur video artist who’s curious to see what this guy is all about? You see, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), creator of an online documentary web series called “Encounters,” films her “encounters” with strangers who place ads for her to answer/investigate. She answers an ad from Aaron (Duplass) to visit/film him for monetary reasons, and she’s curious especially after Aaron reveals he is a serial killer. He assures her that he won’t kill her, and she has little reason to trust him (thankfully, she arms herself with a hidden knife). All he wants is for her to film his expressions of reaching the age of 40 and feeling like he’s run out of inspiration for future works. And this is where we get another strange delight: the serial killer has a midlife crisis.

As with the previous film, “Creep 2” is presented in first-person camera perspective, in documentary format, still keeping the audience on-edge and not knowing what to expect. It’s refreshing to note that for all the times we say we’re tired of the “found-footage”/”faux-documentary” gimmick, there are still times when we can say it can still be done effectively.

The suspense in “Creep 2” comes from the question of whether or not Aaron is serious when he says he’s considering quitting the “art” of killing, seeing it more as a “job” than a “religion” (among many funny lines of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film for Duplass to bring levity to an otherwise tense thriller). He confides in Sara, who keeps filming him in his times of excitement and depression and inconsistent strangeness. That leads to the bigger question, which is whether or not Sara is safe. And if so, then for how long?

I liked “Creep 2” better than the first “Creep,” despite giving them both the same rating (ratings are hardly meaningful anyway—just read what I have to say instead of focusing on the stars). It’s just as refreshing but also funnier, more tense, and, for lack of a better word, creepier. Duplass is clearly having a ton of fun with the role, which is more compelling with each layer that gets peeled throughout these movies, and Akhavan is a refreshing protagonist who is scared of her company but tries to remain calm as she tries to learn more about him carefully. And I confess I didn’t know where this story was going and it delighted me that it continued to surprise me. I’m not sure where Duplass and director Patrick Brice can go from here with a possible “Creep 3,” but I’d sure like to find out.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

5 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “Cloverfield” film series, created by J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot, continues to intrigue me in terms of creativity and surprise, both in substance in its entries and its ability to sneak up on the audience. Last time, with the secret entry “10 Cloverfield Lane,” nobody was aware of its existence until about a month before its theatrical release. This time, with #3, entitled “The Cloverfield Paradox,” everything was kept secret until the Super Bowl, during which a trailer was revealed to viewers…and immediately followed up with the film’s release on Netflix! (Now that’s a pleasant surprise, more pleasant than who actually won the Super Bowl, for some people.)

All three films are science-fiction horror films that take place within the same universe, but they don’t all revolve around the same characteristics. (Actually, there are a few that are noticeable, but they’re not among the focuses of the films. I wouldn’t worry about trying to connect all three films together just yet.) Instead, they all take familiar elements from similar scenarios (the monster-movie, the contained-thriller, the space-station/haunted-house) and present new things to them to put the audience in a world of intrigue, terror and thought. For the first “Cloverfield” in 2008, we had a found-footage approach to a Godzilla-like story; for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” we were kept underground for a large portion of the film until we were aware of what was really going on upstairs; and for “The Cloverfield Paradox,” most of the action is set in a space station, where something goes really, really wrong that may result in bad things on Earth that may or may not have to do with elements from the first two films.

(That’s all I’ll say without giving away spoilers, but really, are you expecting anything less than…”Cloverfield”-esque elements?)

Set in the near future (not quite specified in terms of time), Earth is undergoing an energy crisis. The Cloverfield station is launched by collective space agencies to complete a particle accelerator that will help save the planet (or, as someone on Earth argues, could bring it to its destruction). After two years, the accelerator finally seems to work. But then, after launching it toward Earth, something goes wrong, and the crew onboard the Cloverfield station find themselves experiencing all sorts of inconsistencies in the universe and even in themselves.

What’s happened? Why does everything seem off? Why do things appear/disappear? What’s happening on Earth? And who is the strange passenger that seemingly appears on the ship and knows more than the crew does about her? What’s the connection to the other “Cloverfield” films? Some of these questions are answered, while others are best left to interpretation (unless you see the film a second time and something clicks in your mind, leading to a probable conclusion). And also, much like with “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the filmmakers (which, in this case, include producer J.J. Abrams and director Julius Onah) don’t feel the need to spoon-feed their audience with numerous details. We’re just thrown into a drastic situation, and these things are what our characters have to go through.

There’s some good character moments as well, particularly involving an appealing, fully-developed lead heroine named Hamilton, played very well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She has a tragic backstory and a husband (Roger Davies) she left on Earth, and so when certain things about this new phenomenon are revealed to her, she has choices to make that aren’t easy to figure out as one may think. There’s also a nice moment in which we see a crew member named Kiel (David Oyelowo) crying by himself after the trouble starts, and then he collects himself before returning to his crew to take command. Most of the side characters (the rest of the Cloverfield crew) are types, but they’re likable types, particularly Chris O’Dowd as the comic-relief who has a particularly bad experience involving one of his body parts and yet still has one-liners to crack.

It’s easy to make the comparison to “Alien,” seeing as how most of the action takes place on this space station and Hamilton could be seen as a Ripley-type. But “The Cloverfield Paradox” has enough dark colors in its production design of this space station to give it its own identity (much more than 1997’s “Event Horizon,” which must have stolen the set from “Alien” to make up for its lack of original style). The CGI visual effects are effectively done, which made me wish I could’ve seen this film on a big screen rather than a small screen. (And I saw this film on my smartphone, which is too small a screen for a film of this spectacle.) But to be fair, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is less about spectacle & action and more about thrills & story.

Look at it like an updated “Star Trek: The Next Generation” story with weird occurrences on the USS Enterprise (or better yet, the “Lost in Space” movie some of us were waiting for). There’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s fear, there’s paranoia, there’s questions, there’s answers, and then there’s a resolution that some audience members may approve of while others may be disappointed. Either way, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is an effective confined-space thriller (literally in space) and a very pleasant surprise to stream on Netflix just after its announcement during the Super Bowl.

Note: I heard a fourth “Cloverfield” film has completed production, and this one intrigues me more than the others—it’s set in WWII and is described as a “supernatural Nazi thriller.”

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.