One of the best things about the horror genre is how close it gets us to some very ugly places. Many people wonder why anyone would want to be scared for fun: those people are completely sane, and a little dull, but horror fans know that getting close to the dark corners of the human psyche (where most of horror stems from) gives us a chance to discover things about ourselves and how we deal with fear.
Prolific horror director Mike Flanagan knows this, and his films mirror this psychological need for us to make sense of the unknown and how scary that need can be. Flanagan is a director obsessed with lost things, and the trauma that comes with it. His films, notably Oculus, Hush, and most recently the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game, are centred around the main character’s loss of something important: Oculus adult orphans whose parents were killed by a ghost, Hush’s deaf writer whose disability makes her an especially vulnerable target of a masked killer, and the wife handcuffed to the bed after her husband’s fatal heart attack in the midst of a sex game. Before I Wake is the latest of Flanagan’s filmography to deal with loss.
Except this isn’t Flanagan’s latest film. Before I Wake was originally shot in 2013 but its original distributer filed for bankruptcy leading the film to be shelved. There’s a strange sense of irony here as the treatment of Before I Wake is remarkable similar to that of its central character. One lost due to the figurative death of its distributer, the film found a foster home of sorts thanks to Flanagan’s professional relationship with Netflix.
Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane play a married couple named Jessie and Mark, who are preparing for the arrival of a foster child named Cody, played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay. Jessie and Mark are still grieving over the accidental death of their infant son Sean, who drowned in the bathtub. They seem to support each other but it’s only Jessie that goes to support groups, and she also suffers from insomnia. At first Cody seems like a perfect child, polite, sweet, and curious, but he’s also guarded and secretive. It’s not until he goes to sleep that the truth about Cody surfaces: his dreams and nightmares come true.
This is a creepy premise, and Flanagan, who also wrote the script along with Jeff Howard, does a lot with some subtle special effects, as Cody’s dreams allow his foster parents to see their son, who has a smile frozen on his face, the same as the picture that Cody saw, but there is a little problem in the form of the Canker Man.
Bosworth and Jane are both quietly effective as a couple that are trying to move on with their lives. Bosworth in particular nails the kind of numbness, coupled with a desperation to see Sean again, that she is willing to exploit Cody’s gift. Jacob Tremblay is amazing as Cody, as his small stature and apologetic vibe contrast brilliantly with the chaos he inadvertently causes.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Before I Wake is Flanagan’s remixing of his influences. Once again Stephen King is front and centre as the author loves to tell stories about gifted children, but there is a real X-Men style origin story here. Cody’s abilities are extraordinary, but they are also dangerous.
Before I Wake has plenty of effective scares, a elementary school sequence stands out, but it’s the characters and their fears that make it a cut above the usual horror fare.