Netflix Review: Before I Wake
Impressive horror/fantasy entry in the creepy kid sub-genre
The horror genre is loaded with writers and directors who made astonishing debut horror films and were talked up as the future of the genre only to walk away from it for their follow up’s. One director however who has stuck with it quietly and consistently always producing solid work, is director Mike Flanagan. Starting with the surreal and creepy debut Absentia he then moved on to the equally creepy Oculus and Netflix swooped in to grab the home invasion gimmick flick Hush for release last year. Flanagan returned to cinemas for the better than expected sequel to Ouija and later this year will work with Netflix again for the Stephen King adaptation of Gerald’s Game. So between Hush and Ouija 2, Flanagan wrote and directed an entry in the creepy kid sub genre called Before I Wake which was sadly a victim Relativity Media’s financial troubles and sat on the shelf for a while after its planned release in 2015 came and went. Now Netflix have swooped in and released it as an original movie, in the UK at least.
Before I Wake follows a bereaved couple played by Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth who adopt an eight year old boy played by Jacob Tremblay. They soon find a connection between the strange colourful butterflies that suddenly appear in their living room and the sleeping child upstairs. It seems he can manifest physically the things that he dreams about. The problem is he can also manifest his nightmares and particularly disturbing is an entity that is linked to a number of missing individuals. Mike Flanagan has been keen to distance Before I Wake from a typical horror film and if you are heading into this looking for The Conjuring style scares you may be disappointed. There are scares but the actual film is closer to something like Stranger Things or the fantasy films of Guillermo Del Toro. In fact it feels like Before I Wake could have been released as a PG-13/12A film in cinemas and maybe cleaned up amongst young teens. It definitely has an early 80’s Amblin vibe to much of it whilst still being a film that takes place in really only three locations — a small film with big ideas. If it had been marketed the right way it could have got that Stranger Things crowd and been a breakout hit. Although it appeals to me on this level, that’s not to say that Before I Wake is without problems. The main problem is sadly familiarity. If you have seen any creepy kid film from any period ever, rest assured Before I Wake hits every beat in that playbook. There are the haunted former guardians, the over protective authorities and the visits to an old creepy hospital. I’m also sorry to say that Kate Bosworth is not a strong enough actress to carry what she is asked to do here. Not once does she register as a bereaved mother consumed by grief and she just kind of floats through the role, never emoting at obvious points and failing at the minor heavy lifting required even in the sense of wonder moments. There are a couple of moments towards the end when the effects budget doesn’t quite equal what we are supposed to be astonished by on screen. There is one character that flits between a practical effect and a CG image and the differences are too obvious and jarring.
Having said all that, I actually really liked Before I Wake. There is a sense of wonder at the beginning at what is happening that is all too rare in fantasy cinema and this combined with the scary kids movie vibe really endeared the film to me. For all it’s tried and true creepy kid movie moments, the finale is unexpected and emotional. A more cynical individual might see the denouement coming but it blindsided me late at night on a Friday and that was when the film finally won me over. Part of this is thanks to Jacob Tremblay’s performance and part of it is Flanagan’s script and direction which come together to create something unique. For all of it’s dreams and nightmares, the horror here has its roots in the real world much like Pans Labyrinth.
Before I Wake is another example of Mike Flanagan’s genuine talent not just for horror but now for cinematic fantasy as well. It’s a shame this has been relegated to streaming but is ripe for discovery now that its widely available.