BEFORE I WAKE (2016)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Stars: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Antonio Evan Romero
There are films that are obviously made to appeal to hardcore horror fans. TERRIFIER, HOSTEL, the V/H/S series. There are films that are made for those who like their scares a bit more cerebral than gory. IT FOLLOWS, STARRY EYES, IT COMES AT NIGHT. And then, there are the “horror-lite” movies – the kind made for people that don’t necessarily like, let alone care for horror films. BEFORE I WAKE, as far as I can tell, falls into that last category.
What I’ve seen of director MIKE FLANAGAN’S work I have liked so far, especially the slow-burning, otherworldly chiller ABSENTIA. Plus, I had no doubt that he would be capable of imbuing the premise of this movie with some halfway decent chills, and there are a few here to be had. But it’s as if in its quest not to terrify anyone too much, the storytelling lost a lot of the ‘juice’ it could have had, and so winds up registering as an okay thriller, instead of a heart-stopping horror melodrama like THE SIXTH SENSE, that could have really made a lasting impression upon the audience, regardless of how they like their horror delivered.
This Netflix original tells the story of foster parents Jessie (KATE BOSWORTH – SUPERMAN RETURNS) and Mark (THOMAS JANE – 1922, SyFy’s series THE EXPANSE and THE MIST), who are seeking a way to heal their hearts and their marriage, after the accidental death of their young son, Sean (ANTONIO EVAN ROMERO).
Into their lives comes the sweetest little boy that anyone could ever hope for, eight-year-old Cole (JACOB TREMBLAY in his film debut). He’s quiet, polite, disturbingly mature for his tender age, and very guarded. That’s because he’s hiding a wonderful, terrible secret that Jessie and Mark are about to discover.
In a terrific script-flipping on the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Cole has to try to stay awake as long as possible, because when he sleeps, he dreams. And those dreams somehow manifest themselves in real life. Because he’s a big fan of butterflies, Cole’s dreams can be an incredibly magical phantasmagoria of color and beauty you’d be so bowled over to be a part of.
But, on the flip side of that, he also has nightmares that can manifest as well. And that shit, you want to have no parts of. Especially when the boy’s nemesis, the terrifying “Canker Man”, shows up. So, in a nutshell: on Elm Street, you fall asleep, Freddy creeps into your dreams and you die. Here, when Cole falls asleep, someone else is more than likely going to die. Or at least that’s how it appears.
And that brings us to the problematic side of BEFORE I WAKE. Not only is the ending completely ambiguous, but very similar to the climax of the “It’s A Good Life” episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. You know the one – where Bill Mumy from LOST IN SPACE could “wish bad people into the cornfield”, or worse? (The ZONE movie did an even better job of remaking it, thanks to Joe Dante.)
Call this a spoiler if you will, but those affected by Cole’s realistic nightmares of “The Canker Man” seemingly stay…wherever they went, or whatever they became. The issue’s not really addressed, except in a Hallmark Channel kind of way, which is especially disturbing and confusing, considering which characters get to meet Cole’s monster. And worse still, the final ‘reveal’ of who and what “The Canker Man” really is, comes across like M. Night Shyamalan writing on a really lazy day, when he wanted to get the “twist” over with, and just threw something in there. I don’t want to come across as ragging too badly on Flanagan’s and JEFF HOWARD’S script, but that’s just how it struck me.
And yes, I’m going to have to go in on Kate Bosworth’s acting, too. The same thing that made her a problem for me in SUPERMAN RETURNS is repeated here. A very integral scene in about the end of the first act, happens when Jessie realizes what Cole’s dreams can do, and in a way that should raise the hackles of the audience, she manipulates him into providing something that she felt she badly needed. You’ll recognize the scene when it happens – it’s actually in the trailer, but seeing it whole, in context, it presents a study in acting contrasts. Bosworth tries to convey the complex emotions of the scene, but it comes across as if it were something from a Kay Jewelers ad, where the wife finds out that her ring was a few carats less than her husband told her it was, and is ‘upset’.
But watch Thomas Jane. Like a lot of actors in his particular category, his rugged good looks have always seemed to obscure the fact that he’s also a damn good actor, and the way he deals with those same emotions in that scene is letter-perfect. Especially how he allows that to color the rest of his performance in the movie, where Kate still seems to be operating on one speed.
And happily, the same can’t be said of ANNABETH GISH (THE X-FILES, THE WEST WING, SONS OF ANARCHY) who plays Natalie, the social worker who hooks Jessie and Mark up with Cole in the first place. She’s definitely struggling with a lot of guilt, once she realizes that she bears much of the responsibility for what happens when the shit hits the fan, for not telling the new fosters about Cole’s “special gift” in the first place.
And DASH MIHOK (THE PERFECT STORM, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, GOTHAM) gives probably the best performance I’ve ever seen him in, as Whelan, the former foster parent-turned-mental patient, who knows all about Cole and what he can do (his story unfolds in the opening moments.) He’s a man who obviously loves this little boy, but is torn by the dilemma of having to make a horrible decision about him, (which he does NOT follow through with – hey, it is a PG-13 film, after all.)
Having gotten all of that out in the open, though, it can’t be stressed enough that it’s a beautiful-looking production, right down to the weird, unsettling design of “The Canker Man”, who looks exactly like something a kid Cole’s age would draw, ripped right off of the paper itself. And as a director, Flanagan still does a more than passable job. I think the biggest problems boil down to the ending, and not having an actor who could really handle the role of Jessie. (If Bosworth and Gish had switched places, that would have been interesting!)
Though it’s not based on a YA novel, BEFORE I WAKE seems to sit comfortably in that realm, so I would definitely recommend it as a horror movie for people not usually into horror movies. For all the things that are good about it, I can easily give it two-and-a-half out of five stars.