Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Producer: Trevor Macy, Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson
Stars: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols
A grieving couple adopts an unusual boy whose dreams and nightmares become reality when he sleeps.
Many, with director Mike Flanagan possibly included in that group, question whether or not it is accurate to classify “Before I Wake” as a horror film. (It features a creepy nightmare creature that banshee shrieks before absorbing terrified people into its body, therefore it is.) They suggest that given the grieving family drama driving the story, ‘supernatural fantasy’ or ‘frightful fairy tale’ might be more fitting descriptors instead.
While the movie’s mix of genres makes it challenging to reductively label for simplicity’s sake, one applicable adjective everyone can agree on is ‘beleaguered.’ Filmed in 2013 under the title “Somnia” and completed the following year, Relativity Media’s bankruptcy woes doomed “Before I Wake” to distribution purgatory. Some, with director Mike Flanagan definitely included in that group, might say distribution Hell.
International territories finally debuted the movie in 2016, including a Fantasia Film Festival screening. By the time “Before I Wake” dropped on Canadian home video in early 2017, the only whisper of a proper U.S. release remained an aborted Fall 2016 theatrical premiere, which Relativity inexplicably pulled in favor of slotting the appropriately titled “The Disappointments Room” (review here) in its place.
The more time passes, the less anyone save the filmmakers will remember about the circumstances troubling “Before I Wake’s” timeline. Casual viewers might wonder how out of touch the writers were to reference both Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360 in something seemingly dated to 2016/2017. Those with whom the adult fable resonates will ask why they never heard substantial noise about the film’s positive qualities, perhaps stumbling across “Before I Wake” and thinking, “how come I didn’t already know this existed?”
Parents looking to adopt in a horror movie typically come in two types: either unable to conceive or looking to fill a vacancy left by death. Hitting both conventions with one stone, “Before I Wake’s” key couple Jessie and Mark lost their young son Sean to a tragic bathtub drowning and have since discovered they can’t have more children themselves.
Orphans in horror movies typically come in two types too. They are generally either evil, usually related to foggy background involving unknown parents or some sort of curse, or in possession of extraordinary powers, also usually related to an undefined origin or some sort of curse.
Cody is only one of these, though his ability to unwittingly bring his nightmares and dreams to life while sleeping covers the other. At first, Jessie and Mark are pleasantly shocked when manifestations of butterflies become nightly visits from their dead son Sean, recreated unconsciously from Cody’s impressions of family photos. Mark grows increasingly concerned when Jessie starts manipulating Cody into having Sean return regularly. But events in the Hobson household progress from morally questionable to outright horrifying when ‘The Canker Man’ appears as well, and Cody’s conjured creature starts making real people disappear to parts unknown.
Hard and loud in horror is easier to accomplish than soft and hushed. Few directors in genre entertainment have demonstrated as much deftness at making quiet moments compelling as Mike Flanagan has. Flanagan’s knack for subtlety and timing can make slow burn sizzle or sear depending on what a scene calls for to keep muted energy hot.
Yet Flanagan’s patient pacing is usually complemented with macabre mood maintaining a steady vibration underneath. “Before I Wake” deals in drama based more in depression than darkness however, so its tone doesn’t tap into the same effective eeriness as “Absentia” (review here) or “Oculus" (review here), where dread drapes over every action no matter how innocuous.
The result is a dour rhythm that isn’t as nimble as it needs to be to maintain melodrama for sustained periods of group therapy conversations or classroom confrontations that don’t significantly advance exposition. “Before I Wake” is eager to tell a human tale exploring grief, loss, and coping through a supernatural story. Except these themes can’t fully float to the fore in the final edit because of unrewarding, incomplete side scenes such as a police investigation without a real resolution.
Pat jump scares can be forgivable when executed efficiently. Here, issuing free passes to tropes is a more taxing ask because entire scenes are contrived from predictable templates, e.g. Jessie visiting an insane asylum patient to obtain pertinent backstory for triggering act three.
Formula can be fine. But “Before I Wake” puts so much effort into following one that its unique edge is dulled. The film is nevertheless enjoyable on a thoughtful as well as straight entertainment level. It’s simply hard not to see the movie struggling to expand to the full scope of its capabilities and intentions.
“Before I Wake” is emotionally earnest and sincere about its spookiness. Yet an all-audiences accessibility makes it the tamest of Mike Flanagan’s projects. This leaves an impression of being the movie the director wanted, though not necessarily what accustomed viewers expect.
Regardless, “Before I Wake” keeps pace with similarly-styled theatrical thrillers starring notable names. No matter how much any individual viewer appreciates its appeal, ‘beleaguered’ “Before I Wake” deserved no less consideration than “The Other Side of the Door” (review here), “The Darkness” (review here), or the aforementioned “The Disappointments Room” received on public stages. That much at minimum is unfair for the film.
Review Score: 65