Everyone has their tastes when it comes to horror movies. Some like it gruesome, others like it demonic, and others still enjoy psychological terror.
Me? I like a good ghost story. A good ghost story is usually focused on the characters and the real human emotion driving them, combined with clever camera angles, creaky doors that shouldn’t be creaking, and things that go bump in the night.
Before I Wake is the stepping stone middle film of Netflix darling horror director, Mike Flanagan. He’s previously done the well-received Hush, Oculus and Ouija: Origin Of Evil, and has since wowed with Gerald’s Game and The Haunting Of Hill House.
This is a director who has stood out from the one-note splatter of his contemporaries to find a niche in well-acted and chilling work.
What Is Before I Wake About?
Cody (Jacob Tremblay) is an 8-year-old boy who has gone from home to foster home. Now he is with foster parents Jessie and Mark, whose own son died in a tragic accident sometime prior.
He is sweet but tries to force himself to stay awake because when he sleeps his dreams – and his nightmares – become real.
There is immediately a lot of horror potential in this setup but instead of assaulting you with horrific dreamscapes, Before I Wake is much more interested in another kind of story: grief.
Through superb direction, the pain and sadness of Jessie (Kate Bosworth, The I-Land) and Mark (Thomas Jane) is the emotional anchor of the story. Long shots and close-ups mean that we really feel the weight and pain on their shoulders.
By fostering they are trying to move on and they are genuinely loving, but when young Cody starts to accidentally manifest a dream version of their dead son, this temporary comfort causes them to react differently to the gifted young boy in their care.
Before I Wake Official Trailer
Is Before I Wake Worth Watching?
Jacob Tremblay as Cody is the real stand-out star here. His vulnerability and sweetness make the film work as a less able child actor would have been too distracting.
His nightmarish creation of The Canker Man is a tall, screaming and rotten banshee that devours people and Cody pumps himself full of sugar and coffee in an effort to keep it at bay.
Tremblay’s gentle resolve makes you want to hug him, which helps get you emotionally invested in the real emotional trauma that Jessie and Mark are working through with him.
The issue with Before I Wake is that the story of grief and loss takes centre stage so much that there is little room left for the actual horror elements. These are few and far between.
Yes, it’s creepy to have the camera track shadows behind an unaware Jessie and yes the Canker Man is a deliciously unnerving presence, but his brief appearances are so short it’s hard to get the heart pumping.
A sub-plot involving a bully at Cody’s school feels crowbarred in just to add another scary scene for pacing. The movie doesn’t want to do cheap jump scares which is laudable, but it never really pushes being scary either. Even the movie’s climax is muted which isn’t helped by Bosworth’s last act performance.
Jessie’s research into Cody’s past reveals some vital information but when she is walking down the corridors of a children’s home, being faced with the dead ghoulish apparitions of loved ones, she barely bats an eye.
At times this is very symbolically well done, but if our lead actress isn’t scared then why should we be? And although there is some minor fighting between her and Mark (who must win awards daily for ‘world’s most ridiculously handsome man’!) he is so loving and reasonable that it never gets going.
Before I Wake is a horror movie that doesn’t want to be a horror movie. What it is, in fact, is a supernatural drama and a very effective ghost story that deals with the pain of loss.
Aside from the last twenty minutes, the acting and tone is all spot on and I very much enjoyed the movie. But if you are after creeps galore then Flanagan’s other work gives more chills.
Words by Michael Record
What Is Cody's Ability?
Cody Morgan, the young boy at the centre of Before I Wake, has a rare and mysterious ability to make his dreams and nightmares manifest into reality. This happens while he sleeps; whatever he dreams of literally comes to life.
At first, this seems like a magical gift. His dreams are filled with beautiful images, like a swarm of colourful butterflies, that become tangible the moment he falls asleep. However, it's a double-edged sword because his nightmares are equally as real and significantly more dangerous.
The mechanism of how this ability works is not explicitly explained in scientific terms within the film, which leaves it more as a fantastical or supernatural element.
What Does “The Canker Man” Symbolise?
The Canker Man is a monstrous figure that emerges from Cody's nightmares. Not only is it terrifying, but it also seems to have the power to “consume” people, making them disappear without a trace.
As the film progresses, it's revealed that “The Canker Man” is intrinsically linked to Cody's past and emotional traumas. It's an embodiment of his fears and anxieties, a monster born from his subconscious.
Is The Movie Based On A True Story Or Book?
Before I Wake is not based on a true story or an existing book. It is an original screenplay co-written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard.
While the film delves into very real themes of loss, grief, and the complexities of the foster care system, its narrative, particularly the fantastical elements like Cody's abilities and “The Canker Man”, are purely fictional.
The story seems ripe for adaptation from literature, given its thematic depth and character complexity, but it's an original work.
Before I Wake Movie Cast
Kate Bosworth as Jessie Hobson
Thomas Jane as Mark Hobson
Jacob Tremblay as Cody Morgan, the foster child of Mark and Jessie. When Cody dreams, his nightmares become real
Annabeth Gish as Natalie Friedman
Topher Bousquet as The Canker Man
Dash Mihok as Whelan Young
Jay Karnes as Peter
Lance E. Nichols as Detective Brown
Antonio Romero as Sean