This review is also up at Channel 24
A couple adopt a young boy, Cody, after their own child died a few years before but they end up getting more than they bargained for when increasingly strange things start happening whenever Cody falls asleep.
What we thought
Before I Wake has been held back for months now internationally (I saw it as a press preview late last year), looking for a moment there like it might not be released at all, but it's really hard to see why. It may not be the most original or the most memorable film ever released but it is, by quite some distance, the very best horror movie to hit our shores in a very, very long time.
Bringing to mind great Spanish-language dark fantasies like the Devil's Backbone or the Orphanage rather than your typical, increasingly boring, jump-scare-heavy (though there are one or two thrown in for good measure) Hollywood horror of the last few years, Before I Wake is just about creepy enough to be classified as a horror film but it wisely refuses to pigeon-hole itself into only one genre.
Before reaching its more full-on horror finale, the film works on a slow-build of mounting tension, fairy-tale-like fantasy and, gasp, real honest-to-goodness human emotion. This isn't really a film for gore hounds who prefer their horror flicks to feature dudes with chainsaws slicing up stupid teenagers (not that there's anything wrong with that) but if you like your horror subtle and your films actually well-made, Before I Wake offers plenty to chew on.
Director/ co-writer (along with Jeff Howard), Mike Flanagan made something of a splash with his breakthrough horror, Occulus, a few years back and his latest film only further solidifies his status as a fantasy filmmaker to watch. Yes, the film falters slightly in its final act where some quite smart and emotionally affecting plot revelations (that happened to remind me of one of my favourite Image Comics miniseries from a while back – and the whole thing reminds me of an early episode of Buffy, anyway) are cheapened ever so slightly by a bit too much CGI and typical horror chase-y, scream-y stuff but at least it feels earned by the beautifully measured storytelling that comes before.
The film features some nicely assured performances by the likes of Thomas Jane, Kate Bosworth and Annabeth Gish (getting stuck into the supernatural stuff with much more ease than her regular role on the absolute worst season of the X-Files) but the real star here is, quite unsurprisingly, young Jacob Tremblay, again proving himself to be the best child-actor, like, ever. This isn't quite the knockout performance of his work in the already somewhat under-appreciated masterpiece, Room, but it's lovely stuff: turning what could be just another generic “creepy kid” role into something much more layered and emotionally resonant. Frankly, he solidifies that nearly 8-star rating all by himself.
I suppose there's something ironic about the fact that the very best horror movie to be released in South African cinemas since I don't know when, isn't actually super scary and may not work at all for horror fans who prefer their horror full-on, faster paced and with less “feels” but all it really takes is a slight realignment of expectations to appreciate what we have here. Before I Wake may be flawed and it may have a terribly generic title but it's a rare exception of real quality in a genre that has been sadly lacking in exactly that for far too long.