A young woman must save herself and her friends from an ancient evil that stalks its victims through the real-life phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick (creator of the Final Destination series) is a confirmed A Nightmare on Elm Street fanatic and Wes Craven aficionado. Aren’t we all?
His new film Dead Awake – directed by Phillip Guzman – had its world premiere at the 16th Annual Shriekfest this past weekend.
There’s a fine line between paying tribute to your horror heroes and the terrifying tales of the past – and an audience asking the question “why?” Dead Awake walks that tight-rope, borrowing heavily from Craven’s signature film while also branching out on its own with humor and its own set of unique rules.
Jocelin Donahue (of Ti West’s House of the Devil) stars as twin sisters Kate and Beth Bowman. They are estranged, and Beth has been having strange nightmares and experiencing crippling sleep paralysis. Her sleep patterns and her life as a whole have been interrupted, with her fear growing by the day. At their mutual birthday party, they reconnect, and Beth reveals the problems she’s been having – something has been trying to strangle her in her sleep. Once tragedy strikes, Kate must team up with Beth’s distraught boyfriend Evan (Jesse Bradford) and discover who or what is attacking them in their sleep and what they can do to stop it.
The performances are the biggest selling point of Dead Awake. In a delicious dual role, Jocelin Donahue tears up the screen as twins Kate and Beth Bowan. Cleverly (and expertly) shown frequently in the same frame (I was watching the eye-lines the whole time to make sure they matched – they did), Donahue makes each character distinct. Certainly physical differences are highlighted, but it’s the work of Donahue which seals the deal. Perhaps it was a subliminal comparison, but I was reminded of the stellar work by Margot Kidder in De Palma’s classic Sisters. Kate has quite an obstacle to overcome in the form of The Hag (the creature haunting the waking dreams of these people) and with the extra baggage of guilt and grief, it’s a great deal to overcome. But with Donahue at the center, our sympathies are engaged and we’re invested in the spooky ride.
Boyfriend Evan (Bradford) seals himself up in his artistic endeavors (he’s a painter, and his first experience with The Hag inspires his paint-brush) once things become difficult. But a burgeoning romance (never obviously sealed or totally acknowledged – I loved this subtlety) with Kate brings him back to life. Bradford gets most of the comic relief, and thankfully he delivers it well, and it never feels out of place. So many times, one-liners in a serious horror flick don’t quite work, but kudos to Reddick and Bradford for hitting their marks. Evan’s a very lovable and loyal guy, and it’s a nice chemistry opposite both of the sisters presented by Donahue.
Lori Petty has a supporting role as Dr. Sykes. Petty’s a veteran of the screen, and she brings a wobbly authority to the good doctor, while still keeping a bit of the manic behavior she so expertly exhibits as Lolly on Orange is the New Black. Sykes/Petty always seems just on the edge of cuckoo – which actually works well, considering Dr. Sykes’ specialty. It raises interesting questions (we sort of get some answers) about Dr. Sykes’ history with sleep paralysis.
As far as production values, the piece looks like a major studio film. With editing from one of Craven’s former go-to’s – Peter Devaney Flanagan (he worked on films like Scream and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), it’s a beautifully done film – including great detail in set design and the fun and abrupt change of lighting when the paralysis begins. On the note of editing, however, I feel a judicious cut of 10 or so minutes would have benefited the film. It wasn’t a horrible drag by any means, but there was a lingering sense that it could have been slightly tighter.
There are some great set pieces (namely Kate and Evan’s visit to a man who claims to have beaten the sleep paralysis curse), allowing for ample tension and well done “boo” moments to keep you on your toes.
The climax left me a bit wanting. It felt awfully quick and seemed to stray slightly from the rules set up by the early parts of the film.
With a strikingly similar structure to Wes Craven’s original Freddy Krueger story, as well as moments borrowed from Craven’s Deadly Blessing (check out the poster art) – and even locations seemingly lifted from A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film doesn’t feel wholly original. But, Reddick explained during a Q&A following the screening that it wasn’t necessarily meant to be. It is indeed an homage. Why, even some of the real-life case files of children battling demons and eventually succumbing to the evil of their nightmares (used by Craven), were researched as Reddick wrote the film.
It seems quite clear that there are hopes to expand upon this universe and hopefully add The Hag to the already-overflowing cache of horror heavyweights. I’m not sure she had the power to reach such heights (she herself is not terribly original – adopting the jerky and bone-cracking physicality of so many stringy-black-haired Asian monsters – think The Ring and The Grudge), but I’m willing to see where she can take us. Let’s just say that I’d be on board for a sequel. Also, The Hag’s makeup was quite effective.
But as a film – aside from the very (almost too) obvious influences – Dead Awake is strong. Authentic performances, eerie atmosphere and a sleek production are key to its success.
However, I can’t offer a higher rating than 4 stars. That “fine line” mentioned above – well, in Dead Awake, it’s a very tepid balance. One wrong step and it could have gone into “I’ve absolutely seen this before, so what’s the point?” Luckily, it succeeds on its own merits and becomes a worthy film for you to check out – just be ready to whisper to your movie-going cohort, “Oh look, I remember that from…”
Finally, Reddick himself appears as a friend of Kate and Beth, and Beyond the Gate’s Brea Grant shows up as a mutual friend who also has a history with sleep paralysis.
Dead Awake has just begun its festival run, and no wider release information is available.