Before I Wake. 2016. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Screenplay by Flanagan & Jeff Howard.
Starring Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Annabeth Gish, Jacob Tremblay, Dash Mihok, Scottie Thompson, Jay Karnes, Kyla Deaver, & Courtney Bell.
Intrepid Pictures/Demarest Films/MICA Entertainment.
Rated PG-13. 97 minutes.
Ever since I saw Absentia there’s always a twinkle in my horror loving eye when I hear that Mike Flanagan is directing something. Even when it’s a sequel to Ouija. I’ll watch whatever he makes, simply because he’s given horror enough in the past five years to in turn give him the benefit of the doubt. His recent horror-thriller Hush is an exercise in tension that I enjoyed so damn much.
So getting the chance to see Before I Wake this summer was a treat. Flanagan and Jeff Howard, co-writer of Oculus (another excellent little slice of horror) and Ouija: Origin of Evil, concoct a fairly impressive dark fantasy that is equal part psychological horror as it is an intense look at the drama of fractured families.
At the root of this film are ideas about emotional trauma, how people choose to heal and move on, if they choose to even do so, as well as the power of our dreams (or nightmares as it were). Flanagan directs a wonderful cast of actors, each bringing their talents to the table in exciting ways, especially Kate Bosworth whose performance as a grieving mother is one of tragic beauty. Before I Wake is not as horror as some of Flanagan’s other titles. Nonetheless, it is creepy at times, just like it’s emotionally devastating at others and tender in moments. If you like dark fantasy, a mix of light horror and heavy drama, then you’ll definitely be interested.
There’s a dichotomous perspective on pain and lingering trauma that parallels Jessie (Bosworth) and her adopted son Cody (Jacob Tremblay; a fine young actor after this and Room). The mother deals with her own flashback visions of her and Mark’s (Thomas Jane) son that died awhile ago. Once we start to figure out Cody has a strange power – or curse – then these flashbacks pale in comparison. At first the kid starts to conjure up butterflies. Mark and Jessie are fascinated, if not a bit weirded out. Things take a dark, tragic turn once Cody sees pictures of the dead boy, and starts manifesting his image. The couple teeters somewhere in a world between dream and reality. One minute their son returns, then the next, after Cody wakes up, he’s gone again like dust caught on the night air. This leads into a danger case of near abuse.
Longing to see her son again, not having fully dealt with the trauma of losing him – while it seems her husband Mark, though hurt, is doing slightly better – Jessie starts to manipulate Cody in order to get a glimpse of that lost part of her life. This gets even more dangerous, as it not only prolongs her healing mentally further and further, but also severely exploits this little orphaned boy being bounced around from one family to the next. Worse than that, Cody is so damaged because of his own inner demons that nobody would ever know exactly how bad until it’s too late. Not respecting or paying attention to the power of Cody’s manifestations, Jessie inadvertently puts herself and everyone else in the way of a dark force.
The Canker Man is an entity in Cody’s nightmares which kills people. Well, maybe not kills. He… takes people. They disappear. He’s very unsettling, from just the idea of him to his physical conception and how he attacks people, what he does to them. His mere reference by the boy is spine tingling. This film is horror, though more in line with the supernatural obviously. Like a dark fantasy vision of A Nightmare on Elm Street, less violent and more focused on the theme of repressed memories, the damage they can cause in many different forms. It’s a haunted house story set within the (vast) limitations of a dangerous child’s mind, a haunted house which follows Cody everywhere he goes.
So many great visuals. The butterflies are interesting on their own, then they take the form of Christmas light butterflies; even the CGI feels genuine rather than jammed into the film to make up for a lack of anything. The implications of Cody’s dream creations are huge. So the way Flanagan and Co. tackle his nightmare visions is fitting. They don’t go too wide, but just wide enough. Then there are simpler moments, such as the coffee grounds bit when Cody tries his damnedest to stay awake, as long as possible – this again calls to mind the Wes Craven classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, almost more of the story which it inspired it. It’s the Canker Man whose apparition is dreadful, in the best sense. He is like a literal cankerous growth, a terrifying bit of nightmare oozing out of Cody’s mind. His mouth and eyes, or a lack thereof, is chilling. He is the best visual way of representing what grief, repressed memory, sorrow all do when wrapped up inside instead of being let out and dealt with properly.
I’m not huge on the finale. Despite that, Before I Wake is absolutely a 4 out of 5 star film. It’s labelled as a horror when, in my mind, it ought to be promoted more as dark fantasy. In no way does that make it any less awesome. There’s so much good stuff here. A unique look into the way grief manifests itself dangerously, an allegory, like a warning never to try replacing a dead child with another one.
There’s lots of good acting, particularly Bosworth and Tremblay; Jane gets his chances and delivers, too. You can hear that signature Danny Elfman sound in the score, joined by the Newton Brothers (Oculus, Proxy), which adds an entirely other dimension to the visuals we experience during Cody’s nightmares. The sounds are a large element to why the atmosphere feels so dreamy.
With a few flaws, Flanagan makes an exciting piece of cinema once again. His abilities as a horror filmmaker are super impressive to me because he runs the gamut, going from slasher-type stuff with Hush, to his various trips into the supernatural from Oculus back to the fantastic indie Absentia which drew me to his work. Before I Wake is a fantastic addition to his body of work. Can’t wait to see what he does next.