2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Jay Karnes | directed by Mike Flanagan | 1hr 37mins |
Studio Pitch: A young boy has the power to manifest things into reality while he dreams
Before I Wake scratched a horror itch I didn’t know I had. It’s probably not something that would have stood out a few years ago and maybe it speaks more to the current zeitgeist around horror films where torture and dead teenagers reign, but I was entertained by it’s softer touch. It’s the not-so-latest movie from Mike Flanagan who made an impression with his fun debut killer-mirror movie Oculus, then the very effective indie thriller Hush, then pumped life into a dead franchise with the Ouija sequel. After being advertised in theaters in 2016, Relativity Media went bankrupt leaving Before I Wake in limbo for over a year until it debuted on Netflix. Flanagan has made a career slipping under the radar of low expectations and it’s worked because, even when working with modest and fairly routine material, he knows the basics of horror movie construction.
Also co-written by Flanagan the not-so-novel premise centers around a young boy, Cody (Jacob Tremblay, Room), who has a power to manifest into reality whatever he dreams during the night. An orphan, he’s bounced around several foster homes until he is let in by a couple (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane) grieving the loss of their own young son about Cody’s age. Flanagan has wrestled the infinite possibilities of a young child with God-like mental powers from the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life” into a manageable story and that would have made for a perfectly fine horror flick. Then Flanagan goes the extra mile and wraps in the parallel grief stories, a mother who just lost her son with a boy who lost his mother and the story becomes refreshingly multi-dimensional.
Where another movie may have approached Cody’s nightmares and the monsters he conjures up during them for endless scenes of his adopted parents walking around in the dark while things jumped out from shadows. Flanagan also sees the beauty of childhood imagination in this story, introducing his power to Bosworth and Jane’s characters with an arrival of butterflies in their living room. There is a sweetness to this movie I wasn’t expecting. While “sweetness” might not be the defining point of great horror, in a post-Saw age where it’s not common for horror to probe as cold and mean-spirited as an audience will put up with, I found this take refreshing.
Spoilers from here on out because baked in the rest of the story features a clever turn that I’d prefer left for the audience to discover, but is worth talking about. Wake finds Cody going to school and being picked on by a bully – and, it has several jump scares where things jump out at night (which Flanagan executes well). But things really get interesting when Flanagan starts exploring the grief of Bosworth’s character, who upon learning about Cody’s power, uses the boy’s abilities to bring back a version of her son – if only for a few minutes at night. There is a scene where Bosworth sits over Cody after tucking him in bed, telling him stories of her son to feed dream-prompting ideas into his head that has both a creepy manipulative vibe and works as an empathetic grief-fueled power fantasy. What parent wouldn’t try this but also – as Jane’s character argues – she’s using the boy. How helpful is it to use this child as a memory-making machine to keep living in a fantasy world? How far is she willing to go to keep her son’s memory alive at the expense of Cody? It’s a great moral conundrum the movie doesn’t explore as deeply as I’d like, moving far too quickly to the monster movie stuff.
Although I’d like to see this taken in a more twisted direction, to play out the moral debate more, I was still pleasantly surprised with where Flanagan does go. Before I Wake has a few more colors in it’s palette than your average one-note horror movie, allowing itself to venture into satisfying places fitting the material. There are certainly plenty of horror elements here. While CGI skeleton creatures and butterfly monsters look goofy, Flanagan knows how to pull off a jump scare. Even on Netflix, without the benefit of theater surround sound, I jumped at this movie more than I have anything else on home video recently.
Before I Wake is horror-lite. Not particularly moody or scary. The performances are ok. The stakes never feel like they get too high (even when it seems like they should). But within that pretty routine framework, Flanagan drops a few interesting ideas and a skilled hand with the jumps into the mix. The “It’s A Good Life” / God-Child premise isn’t an easy one to bring to the screen and Flanagan has found a way to make it work (for the most part). Flanagan’s films often have an old fashioned jump-fun horror mentality but don’t approach gruesome or unsettling. It’s a tonal balance not everyone can pull off. If Mike Flanagan wants to be the guy who makes horror movies that are also sweet and heartfelt, that market is pretty much wide open for the taking.