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Somewhat ironic, considering Before I Wake was originally a 2015 film.
Not widely released until this past Friday, growing master of horror Mike Flanagan’s “new” film Before I Wake was actually made *before* Flanagan directed recent hits Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush and Gerald’s Game. Believe it or not, filming wrapped way back in 2013, with the movie originally dated for release in 2015… then 2016… and then 2017.
Netflix saved the film from purgatory, premiering it last week.
Ever since Wes Craven brought a dream demon to the screen with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, the horror genre has been blending nightmares and reality in various different ways. But Before I Wake injects that particular approach with a whole lot of invention, centered on a young boy whose dreams and nightmares manifest in the real world while he sleeps.
Jacob Tremblay stars as the 8-year-old Cody, an otherwise perfect little gentleman who is adopted by Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane’s Jessie and Mark Hobson at the start of the film. Jessie and Mark have recently lost their own child in a tragic at-home accident that still haunts them, but they’re hoping Cody will fill that void in their hearts – if that sounds a bit selfish, know that the film doesn’t shy away from exploring the darkness of that particular desire.
As for Cody, well, it doesn’t take long before he falls asleep… despite his best efforts.
When Cody sleeps, whatever he imagines inside his own head – be it a wonderful dream or a horrifying nightmare – literally manifests itself in the Hobson home. Cody seems to initially be at peace in his sleep, as colorful butterflies appear to Jessie and Mark while they’re lounging on the couch – these “dream” moments are pure magic, as they’re lit, filmed and wonderfully played by both actors as waking dreams that you can’t help but be in sheer awe of. But Cody’s supernatural abilities take a sinister turn when he begins to have nightmares. Cody is terrorized in his sleep by a barely-humanoid creature he refers to as “The Canker Man,” a slender, alien-like being that literally consumes anyone in its path.
The Canker Man is always with Cody, he warns his new parents.
But lest you think Before I Wake is your standard tale of a nightmare creature invading the real world, the brilliance of Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard’s script is that it’s actually an emotionally complex tale of love, loss and the way that our past experiences, well, haunt us in our everyday lives. Without giving anything away, The Canker Man is something more than a dream demon that Cody dreamed up in his worst nightmares; rather, it’s a nightmarish manifestation of the most terrifying, deep-seated moment in the young boy’s past.
Much like Gerald’s Game, Before I Wake is capped off with a heart-wrenching coda that ties the whole thing together and takes everything you’ve just watched to an entirely new level. The film is equipped with one of the strongest final acts you’ll ever see in a horror movie, highlighting what makes Flanagan such a master storyteller in the horror space: his deep, heart-on-his-sleeve empathy for others, and his clear understanding that horror means absolutely nothing without relatable human emotion at the center of it.
Before I Wake is the story of a sad mother who needs a child to love. And a lonely child who needs to be loved by his mother. And it’s another wonderful treat from a new master.
I’d say 2018 is off to a great start, horror fans.