Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violent Content and Terror including Disturbing Images
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Starring: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Topher Bousquet, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Scottie Thompson & Justin Gordon
Mike Flanagan has quickly established himself as a rising talent in the horror genre. He’s made waves with ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, and the far-better-than-expected OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. In spite of his many accomplishments (ranging from impressive to miracle-working), one of Flanagan’s movies has been frequently delayed in its journey to theaters and is currently gathering dust on a studio’s shelf. Suffering multiple release date changes before being delayed indefinitely, BEFORE I WAKE is a horror-fantasy that has seemingly been released everywhere but the USA. I had to import a copy from Canada to write this review. So, is this film worth the wait or is there a clear reason why the studio is holding off on releasing it? The answer to this question, like the film itself, is a bit of a mixed bag.
Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are grieving parents who wish to move on by adopting a foster child. This lucky kid is Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an eight-year-old boy who’s been dealt plenty of short straws in life. The new parents take an instant liking to this well-behaved youngster, but it turns out that Cody comes with some baggage. While Cody sleeps, his dreams physically manifest around him. This seems wonderful at first with beautiful butterflies and the couple’s deceased son returning for a bit of unexpected therapy. However, this gift also has a dark side as it turns out that Cody’s nightmares are potentially deadly. Jessie and Mark must figure out how to put a stop to Cody’s bad dreams before they wind up killed or eaten.
BEFORE I WAKE has an undeniably cool premise that is aching for imaginative visuals and (literal) nightmarish imagery. However, this story takes a long while to get going. This has been billed as a straight-up scarefest (much like Flanagan’s other efforts), but that’s not necessarily the case. BEFORE I WAKE feels like a Guillermo Del Toro produced fantasy-horror flick rather than an all-out horror movie. Almost 45 minutes pass before the film’s momentum really gets moving and that feels like far too long of a wait, even though this time is dedicated to developing characters. I rarely complain about this in my reviews, but this story had way too much character development. Scenes of exposition and family bonding detract from the film’s main dream/nightmare plot.
After nearly half the running time has passed, the film finally starts moving at a brisk pace and employing a few neat twists along the way. The nightmarish visuals are appropriately creepy and I really dug the design of a skeletal boogeyman nicknamed “The Canker Man.” BEFORE I WAKE also took a few ballsy turns before diving into an appropriately fantastical third act. One of these scenes is so unexpected that Flanagan deserves serious props for drastically shifting off the beaten path and then not taking an easy way out on this plot point. The beautiful imagery is cool to look at, while the darker moments appropriately seem to be yanked right out of a child’s nightmares.
The best performance of the film belongs to Thomas Jane as new father Mark. He comes off as a likable, down-to-earth guy and I was rooting for him to survive this dream-logic fueled plot. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth is a deliberately flawed character and this comes into the play throughout the story. Bosworth tries her best to make Jessie worth rooting for and this mostly pays off by the end of the film. However, the viewer may find themselves really struggling to like her during the first two-thirds of the running time. Jacob Tremblay (who delivered some of the best child acting ever in ROOM) is solid enough as innocent, unintentionally dangerous Cody.
As I mentioned before, BEFORE I WAKE is more of a dark fantasy than it is a flat-out horror flick. It will constantly be labeled under the latter genre because of its director and the nightmarish imagery. However, this film really pays off on its grim fairy tale vibe with a hugely satisfying conclusion. The first half of this script uses blatantly annoying foreshadowing in conversations between characters, but the final pay-off remains great. I thoroughly loved this movie’s ending. It takes things out on a high-note and there’s something to be said for just how smart the writing is during the film’s final minutes.
BEFORE I WAKE has likely been shelved because the story takes a bit too long to get going and it’s more of a fantasy than the horror flick that’s already been sold to the public. The film has problems in its muddled pacing during the first half, suffers from obvious foreshadowing early on, and Kate Bosworth’s character is downright unlikable for a solid chunk of the film. When this movie fully takes off halfway through, it’s a major step-up in quality and imagination. There are lots of neat images throughout the nightmare sequences that will surely please horror fans and the final third is pretty great. Temper your expectations when this one eventually hits US shores and you’ll likely enjoy it for the decent horror-fantasy that it is.