It’s been a pretty productive decade for filmmaker Mike Flanagan. He made a decent splash on the indie horror scene in 2011 with an impressive feature called Absentia, which led him to larger productions like Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and upcoming horror flicks like the Ouija sequel for Blumhouse and a long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game for Netflix — but there’s one more movie from Flanagan that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. It’s a moody little thriller called Before I Wake that has bounced around its distributor’s release schedule for quite some time, but don’t let that scare you off. We’re still not sure when Before I Wake will get a release, but I can tell you at least this much: it hasn’t been delayed for reasons of quality. It’s actually pretty fantastic, truth be told.
Before I Wake falls into a relatively special category of horror films that also includes Poltergeist (1982), Lady in White (1988), and The Babadook (2014): smart, earnest, scary stories in which children play an important role — but not necessarily as a victim. It’s the story of an adorable little orphan (Jacob Tremblay, the amazing young actor we met in Room) who finds a new home with a kindhearted couple (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane) who lost their own child a few years earlier. Jessie and Mark have been informed that Cody has a fairly unhappy history, so they do all they can to offer the little boy a welcoming home.
And then they realize that the troubled little boy’s dreams are not limited to his own unconscious mind. In other words: Cody’s dreams often spill out into the real world, much to the shock and dismay of his new parents. But once they realize that Cody can also bring their late son back to life — if only for a few fleeting moments — they find themselves torn between solving Cody’s emotional problems and using them for their own selfish, bittersweet motives. And that’s when things go from ominous yet seemingly harmless to overwhelmingly creepy and (before all is said and done) surprisingly heartfelt and touching.
What’s most impressive about Before I Wake is not its well-delivered series of scary moments—its brisk pacing, smooth cinematography, eerie score, or even the great performances from all three leads and a brief but excellent contribution from reliable character actor Dash Mihok—it’s how grounded and sincere the film is about the nature of loss, the power of parental love, and the kindness that a child needs in the face of overwhelming tragedy. It’s an impressive genre film in many regards, not only because it’s exceedingly well-crafted and compelling, but Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard do a remarkable job of injecting a lot of heart and humanity into what could have been just another diverting yet familiar ghost story.
So while Before I Wake has bee delayed more frequently than an airplane in a snow storm. remember the Trick ‘r Treat / Cabin in the Woods rule: not every horror movie that suffers numerous release delays is damaged goods. Some of them are actually pretty great.
4.5 dreamlike yet dangerous burritos out of 5: