Mike Flanagan continues to explore his interest in family horror with BEFORE I WAKE, a picture that has some good ideas but labours under cumbersome execution. The screenplay is by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, who collaborated on 2016’s OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL and 2013’s OCULUS. As with those outings, BEFORE I WAKE contends with a family thrust in the midst of loss. But unlike those outings, care and caution appears absent in BEFORE I WAKE. The end result is something more akin to superhero origin story than horror fable, which may or may not be the point.
The story concerns Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) as they adopt eight-year-old Cody (Jacob Tremblay) after the death of their son Shawn. Because this is a movie, something’s up with the adopted child. In this instance, his dreams become reality. Jessie uses Cody to relive her memories of Shawn, but there’s a cost. Cody is haunted by the Canker Man, a grotesque figure that features in his nightmares. The Canker Man causes people to disappear, which obscures things given the boy’s background.
BEFORE I WAKE is initially common in its filmic approach to adoption. There is generally always something secretive or even scary related to an adopted kid and Flanagan’s movie is no different, with Cody bringing his new family a gift in the form of a special power. The terror in this instance is inflicted on the child, however, and that’s where BEFORE I WAKE turns away from the tropes and digs its heels in. Jessie’s abuse of Cody’s circumstances is insensitive at least and devious at best, but the neat conclusion significantly and inadequately destabilizes any maternal horror.
In terms of the particulars, everything works as expected. Bosworth does well as the disturbed mother, but the movie lets her down. Jane is relatively effective as a father having faded into the background of his own life, while ROOM’s Tremblay is game. Michael Fimognari’s is characteristic of the genre, with plenty of shots designed to capture whatever lurks in the background. The Danny Elfman/Newton Brothers score works in concert with the imagery, with tonal prompts linking the appearance of a shadow figure. Flanagan’s direction sews it together, but it’s still hard to shake the gratuitous order that lurks within. By the time the nightmare ends, BEFORE I WAKE is disappointingly typical.