Quick Hit: Invoking both Stephen King and the Nightmare franchise in equal measure, this film succeeds with a focus on dramatic growth of character.
A few years ago, very few people had heard of Mike Flanagan. He is the director for several films we have reviewed here on the site, most of them favorably – Hush, Oculus, Gerald’s Game are all in his rearview, but somehow, I missed this long shelved project. Released shortly after Gerald’s Game, but prior to the excellent series Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan showed that he was drawing heavily from his respect and love for the prolific author, but also was pulling on several heavily dread horror movie tropes. The best praise I can give someone though, is when they somehow make a trope feel more than that, and here is where Flanagan has succeeded and continues to.
Before I Wake takes a family that is grieving after the loss of their child, Sean. Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane, a Stephen King veteran himself – 1922, The Mist) decide that after being unable to have children that fostering a child would be an important step in the healing process. But Cody (Jacob Tremblay) is more than just a normal child – he has the power to pull his dreams into reality. Like any young mutant (because the parallels to the X-universe shouldn’t be forgotten here either), he is unpredictable with his powers. Sometimes he pulls butterflies into the world, and others he pulls a terrifying creature that he has deemed “The Canker Man”. So many pieces of this description feel as if they could have been lifted from a Stephen King story – the exceptional child, the grieving parents, etc.
While many will pick up on the themes of the film quickly, I’ll maintain that Flanagan deftly handles the films reveals and powers through in a way that both maintain the horror and the drama. His camerawork is superb, featuring a wide array of close-ups that highlight terrific acting from his leads. In particular, Tremblay shows why he continues to take the acting world by storm with a performance that is full of childhood wonder, fear, and yet, a breathtaking maturity. Cody is aware of things throughout the film – that he should attempt to keep the Canker Man away by staying awake, that he should keep his parents from finding out more about him by distracting them with questions about their dead son – and Tremblay sells every moment of that. Jane is good as well, but the best performance is from Bosworth, who manages to give a performance that is full of the grief of a mother who has lost her son, and the fear of a mother who could lose another.
Flanagan’s ability with a camera is shown once again when he frames a young Cody within the center of the screen. It gives off the inherent selfishness of a child, to put themselves in the center of the world, while also making Cody seem tiny and insignificant against what he faces. The drama is maintained here as well, allowing the Canker Man to appear at intervals staggered throughout the film, and throughout the screen, which at times feels almost as important.
That's not to say that there isn't a few wrinkles. There's a plot in the center of the film around a bully that goes missing, that seems only to be used as a vehicle to keep Tremblay at home and get other people involved in the story. While the scene itself is fairly scary, and invokes quite a bit of Nancy in Nightmare, it doesn't quite reach the same level and feels a bit distracting from the main plot. However, the parallels to the Nightmare franchise continue towards the end of the film where the lines between reality and dreams start to blur more and more as Cody is put into a deep sleep. It's a beautiful bit of set work and effects that really sets the tone for the final conclusion of the film.
Before I Wake was an excellent start to another month filled with horror films. It’s nice to be back everyone. I’ll happily suggest you take Before I Wake and check it out. I’m giving it a “B+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"