3 out of 5
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
I’ve been poking around director Mike Flanagan’s movies to try to experience the hype that other’s have been selling. And I don’t say that with judgment: this has been good hype, from opinion-sources I trust, and so I was supposing one of his projects would eventually ‘click’ with me and then I’d be won over. Watching Before I Wake – a film that unfortunately struggled through release woes before getting a streaming debut, thanks to Flanagan’s buddying up with Netflix – I felt like this is the one. It’s a little clunky in compressing things down to ninety minutes, as there’s clearly a desire to do a more drawn out haunted house affair like his later Hill House series, but some great performances, patiently effected scares, and a good central concept were really roping me in. But the movie hits a point where its internal logic somewhat stumbles over itself, and it removes any sense of threat thereafter, bringing it back down from a more chilling horror story to a quiet drama. This does seem to be Flanagan’s bread and butter, and is often what he’s praised for – injecting character stories with scares – but I still, now with Before I Wake added to my ‘watched’ tally, haven’t yet seen that combination really come to a solid fruition.
Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth play the adoptive parents – the Hobsons – of Cody, played by Jacob Tremblay. We’ve been given a cold open that makes it clear that Cody has something supernatural-esque going on that’s caused him to be shuffled from home to home, and on his first night with his new family, he sneaks a cache of energy drinks from ‘neath his bed in order to stay awake, and we get a sense of how that supernaturalness might manifest. And indeed, when he eventually dreams, things do start to happen, and when he has nightmares…
Flanagan does a lot right here. Jane and Bosworth and Tremblay are all quality actors, but it’s also clear that Flanagan knows exactly what he wants from scenes, allowing for tight focus on faces and sparing us words to explain actions. Tremblay exists on the fine line between cute and cloying, but I say that with praise: he’s perfect as a kid who’s cautiously stepping into his new life, afraid of, y’know, what dreams may come. And accompanying that aforementioned cold open, when the Hobsons get their own taste of that, they buy into it right away; we don’t waste any time on people trying to convince one another of what’s happening, and Mike gives us bogeyman shots a’plenty – really, really good ones – without any cheap cat-in-cupboard scares.
In order to keep the runtime low, while also leaving time for getting to explanations, though, some pieces are skipped, making the first turning point in the film – progressing from dreams to nightmares – feel a little rushed, and with too many question marks preceding it. Shortly thereafter, the established ‘rules’ of what’s going on are tossed out for some frightening imagery, which ironically diminishes its impact, and soon following that the film transitions to safety so it can wholly explain away its scares.
Before I Wake is very polished, and has the steady point of view and character focus that I think Flanagan fans appreciate. But the mix is still off for my tastes, resulting in a better than average movie, but a very average fright flick.