To dream is to create. This unspoken truism of every human being’s night life is likely what drives so many filmmakers, and honestly artists of any medium, to focus on what dreams may come when we shuffle off to bed… or elsewhere. It’s certainly apt for Mike Flanagan’s long-delayed and surprisingly lucid, Before I Wake. For while the movie has been sitting on the shelf for years, this flawed but surprisingly warm horror movie has something exceedingly rare for genre fans: imagination.
Indeed, Before I Wake embraces its smaller budget to make an intimate portrait of not only the terror felt by children after the night light has been turned off, but in the wonder and dread of the parents who are tasked with keeping those babes safe—and shaping the fancies that dance in their heads. With a focus on characterization and the blurring line between dreams and reality that has become such a staple in thrillers over the years, Before I Wake conjures some breathtaking images that can rise above the film’s other more conventional daytime foilibles.
Told from the perspective of a grieving mother and father named Jessie and Mark (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane), Before I Wake picks up with the couple after they have been allowed to adopt a child for the first time since a tragic freak accident took the life of their own son. Silent and somewhat distant toward each other, guilt and wordless accusations hang between a couple who are able to fill that quiet—for a time—with the new sudden laughter of Cody (Jacob Tremblay). This adopted boy has had a rough go of it after apparently seeing his previous foster parents vanish and “abandon” him in their apartment. And the adoptive parents before that also experienced tragic misfortunes.
However, it’s quick to see why this bad run of luck has trailed the lad. During the day, Cody is sweet and affectionate. He’s even almost absurdly well-adjusted given all the tragedy he’s witnessed. But at night, Jessie and Mark discover an initially enchanting secret: whatever Cody dreams becomes a reality. So the boy who love butterflies can manifest with merely his thoughts a Christmas tree bedazzled with glowing insects of green and red and blue. Yet the real rub of it is not just that Cody dreams up fantasies; he can also dream yours too… provided he has the right encouragement.
Hence in the film’s most intriguing conceit, Jessie, much to her husband’s apprehension, begins showing her new son home movies of their lost child, bringing back the visage of the boy who died as if he were the Ghost of Christmas Past. But Cody brings with these dreams more than just implanted phantoms, and as Jessie urges him to dream, the closer she comes to meeting the ghoulish and skeletal figure who haunts Cody’s nightmares. Soon if Jessie is to keep her future safe, all she’ll have to do is stop an eight-year-old boy from ever having another nightmare.
Before I Wake is a film itself touched by a small tragedy, which began when the indie Revolution Studios went under, taking Mike Flanagan’s first film after the wickedly sorrowful Oculus with it. Since Before I Wake got placed on a shelf, Flanagan has become one of the most popular directors in horror, having helmed underrated gems like Hush and Gerald’s Game, the latter of which was one of Netflix’s better original film releases in 2017. So curiosity—and some unfair insinuation—has bedeviled this picture over the years. And while the end product is Flanagan’s slightest effort to date—excluding doing a major studio’s Ouja sequel—it maintains his greatest attributes that have made him stand tall in a genre often marred by so much unoriginality.
Before I Wake enjoys a dogged fascination with its characters. They’re people who this film is as interested in building up as its several delirious dream set-pieces. The result is a vision of a family in genesis, foregoing past crises to deal with a current one that just so happens to feature a dream demon who would not look out of place in a Tim Burton animation.
With a premise reminiscent of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”—which in turn was adapted into one of the more memorable The Twilight Zone episodes in which a kid’s temper tantrum causes adults be “sent into the cornfield”—Before I Wake has a potentially comical setup about parents walking on eggshells around a child, lest they provoke a night terror that will come for them. However, Flanagan who is working from a screenplay by himself and Jeff Howard, grounds the picture in clever pathos by making it as much about the parents’ fear of failing a ward as it is of fearing the boy’s powers. The film openly invites viewers to question the parenting skills of Jessie and Mark, as one undeniably uses her adopted son’s powers to soothe her own grief and pain. The sophistication in its characterization only heightens dreams which are channeled mostly out of prosthetic effects that are striking in their wonderment, if not ever fully convincing in their verisimilitude.
Such deftness offsets the movie’s overreliance on formula and convention. With a plot structure far more pat than Flanagan’s better films, there is a lack of urgency as the protagonists fall farther down Cody’s rabbit hole. And while Tremblay would go on to give a stunning young performance after this in Room, his character is asked to be too precocious yet inexplicably naïve by half, particularly as it is clear that he’s more than a little aware of what havoc his dreams can wreak. The result is a wayward son who should have traveled much further afield than he has.
But in a story that emphasizes parenthood over the life and times of children, Bosworth and Jane bring needed authenticity to a film, grounding the sentimentality in a believable wistfulness. Jane is especially poignant as the morose and sullen hubby whose reaction to loss is to grow his hair out like a surfer, as if he can float away in his despair.
Their crucible, coupled with the movie’s visual splendor of flights off frightening fancy, elevates Before I Wake above its humdrum narrative beats, making this the kind of film horror enthusiasts should pine for, particularly in the dreamless doldrums of winter.