Dead Awake, 2016.
Directed by Phillip Guzman.
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Jesse Bradford, Jesse Borego, Brea Grant, and Lori Petty.
After her estranged sister Beth dies suddenly while suffering from sleep paralysis, Kate is plagued with guilt after dismissing her initial claims that she was being regularly haunted in her sleep by a sinister force that kept threatening to kill her. After experiencing the same paralysis that killed her sister, Kate begins to look deeper into the world of sleep paralysis and the supernatural, coming up against a demonic entity that feeds on its victims fear and always strikes them as they hover between the world of the waking and the sleeping.
We all love to sleep, don’t we? There is nothing better in this world than coming home from a hard day’s toil and collapsing into a comfy bed for a lovely quiet night of shut-eye. However, imagine if you woke to find you couldn’t move or even talk, all the while you’re being visited by nightmarish visions of your darkest fears, like a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. These are common symptoms of the condition known as sleep paralysis which, it’s estimated, is experienced by around 8 to 50% of people at some point in their lives.
The idea that such a condition exists, and that it can happen to anyone is certainly one that makes the prospect of going to sleep at night seem like a terrifying one. However, don’t expect the sleep based horror Dead Awake to make you feel too scared to go to sleep tonight. If anything it’s likely to help you go under quicker.
I must admit dear readers I really struggled with this one. My struggle is not because it’s a bad film, I’ve certainly seen far worse films and this doesn’t even come close to the worst of the rubbish I’ve seen in my life. The reason I struggled is because this is a very boring film. A very very boring film. And what makes it worse is that it’s a boring film that had the potential to not be anything but boring.
The story is ripe with horror potential – I mean, what’s more, terrifying than being attacked in the place you’re supposed to feel safest, tucked up in your bed, and worse than that you can even fight back against the dream demon because it’s got you paralysed and helpless. That’s a scary thought to have and it should make for at least a moderately spooky horror film. However, instead of taking full advantage of this ripe premise, Dead Awake decides to stroll along at a painfully slow pace that somehow manages to renders its fascinating premise about as scary as a lecture of sawdust. I’m not exaggerating (ok maybe just a bit) when I say that this film almost put me to sleep it was so boring.
My boredom was not helped when I noticed what I think is a fundamental flaw in the film’s premise. The flaw being that far from being a seemingly inescapable terror that gets you in your sleep, the demonic entity dubbed “The Night Hag” is, in fact, a fairly easy villain to defeat. Also, some minor spoilers coming up, so maybe skip ahead if you’re still curious about the film.
After the death of her sister and several encounters with the “Night Hag”, Kate is approached by Hassan (played by James Eckhouse), a sleep therapist who explains that the creature feeds on people’s fear and that to simply believe that the creature exists, allows it to seek out and terrorise its victims before paralysing and strangling them in their sleep.
This plot point would have worked fine, that is if the film hadn’t also featured Dr Sykes (played by Lori Petty) another sleep therapist, who repeatedly warns the protagonists to ignore Hassan’s claims about the “Night Hag”.
Instead, Dr Sykes argues that the demonic entity doesn’t actually exist and that people’s visions of it are merely the result of vivid hallucinations, which she points out are very common in cases of sleep paralysis. This way of looking at the “Night Hag” seems to work for Beth and Kate’s friend Linda, who suffered similar encounters with the “Night Hag” until Dr Sykes convinced her with therapy that it the entity was merely a figment of her imagination. Thus Linda stops believing that the “Night Hag” is real and thus she stops experiencing the terrifying visits and is able to enjoy a normal pattern of sleep.
Then Kate and company essentially say “bollocks to that, the Night Hag is real” and thus Linda starts believing the creature to be real once more which ultimately results in her biting the dust at the hands of the wrinkly dream demon.
In short, Lori Petty is the real hero of the film. Petty tells people that the “Night Hag” isn’t real, they believe it’s not real and thus it leaves them alone. Then our supposed “heroes” barge in essentially telling everyone “THE NIGHT HAG IS REAL AND SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!” thus endangering the lives of everyone around them like a bunch of bloody idiots. Just let people believe it’s not real and then nobody dies. I know I’m nitpicking with this one, but this problem really bugged me and it really took me out of the film.
It’s such a shame that a film with this much potential going for it is rendered as such a slow boring slog. It’s certainly not a badly made film. The cinematography, while hardly groundbreaking, is effective in conveying a sense of fear and menace in the way it captures shadows and darkness. The dream sequences in which the “Night Hag” strikes are decently lit and staged, with the design of the “Hag” herself being effectively spooky, even if she does look like the love child of Freddy Kruger and Sadako from The Ring.
The cast led by Jocelin Donahue all give fine performances with the material they’re given, with Donahue turning in a decent dual performance as Kate and Beth. I especially liked the brief and somewhat unsettling performance of Billy Blair (gotta love alliteration) as Mr Pang, a man so terrified that the “Hag” will get him that his solution is to never sleep again, even if it kills him in the end.
Overall though, Dead Awake is a film that is gifted with an interesting premise that ultimately botches the execution of it, rendering itself as an incredibly dull and disappointing slog that makes you long for the end credits so you can go back to bed.
If you want a good sleep based horror you can’t get any better than the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which Dead Awake acts as a sort of lacklustre remake of. Still can’t be any worse than the actual Elm Street remake.
Or if you’re more interested in the topic of sleep paralysis, check out Rodney Ascher’s documentary The Nightmare which also doubles as a decent horror film with its creepy reconstruction scenes.
As for Dead Awake, give it a watch if you’re curious, otherwise just go to sleep.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★