Film Review: Dead Awake

This one-trick pony only paralyzes its victims for so long before succumbing to ghoulish paranormal norms.
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In the world of independent horror, Dead Awake’s narrative focus should make it a scream-worthy thriller. Sleep paralysis is a nightmarish affliction. Trust me, I know firsthand. Buy me a few drinks and I’ll recall what it’s like to wake up with zero mobility, fighting thoughts of an unseen force holding you down. Sounds sinister, right? Filmmaker Phillip Guzman was lobbed a softball by writer Jeffrey Reddick, who makes an urban legend out of common slumber problems. Imagine if in this state, someone was holding you down! Freeze some bodies and let the terror flow—or, at least one can assume that was Guzman’s intention here.

Jocelin Donahue stars as twin sisters Beth and Kate Bowman. It’s Beth who’s been suffering from bouts of sleep paralysis, and Kate who shrugs off situational seriousness. Beth swears she’s seen a malevolent force, but sleep researcher Dr. Sykes (Lori Petty) assures both Bowmans that evil spirits don’t cause sleep paralysis. Easy, right? A withered zombie woman who looms overhead is fabricated by Beth’s imagination.

Who am I kidding? You know where this is going, just like you’ll predict every move Dead Awake makes.

Right after their meeting with Dr. Sykes, Kate has her own sleep paralysis encounter with Beth’s tormentor. The hands around her neck feel all too real. Kate bolts out of bed with a paranoid intuition, but it’s too late—Beth has been strangled overnight. Kate now must avenge her sibling and save the friends who are now suddenly important to the plot, since they become haunted by the same sadistic sandwoman. You can’t have a horror movie without some kind of body count, right?

Debatable, since it doesn’t quite help here.

The problem with Dead Awake is that even though Beth and Kate share a certain bond, there’s no reason why any other character sees the “Old Hag.” Really—that’s the villain’s nickname. Her legend dates back to 1782, connected to a “Sitting Ghost” myth that equates sleep paralysis to a demon sitting on your chest. All these stories help form Reddick’s creeping corpse, who crawls atop your bed and strangles away. If you wake up, you’re safe. If not, you’re stuck in her hellish purgatory realm until suffocation.

All these details may sound like plausible storytelling, except execution acts as a sedative. You know why everyone’s fighting naps this whole movie? Because creature effects quickly lose their punch after one decent first-time scare. Kate is unable to move, and must watch the Old Hag slither up her bedding. Insert a jump scare, toy with darkness, and wham—you’re smacked by some chilling horror. After that? Guzman shows the Hag with more and more frequency, until we’re accustomed to her Halloween-mask face. She becomes nothing more than another cut-rate Kayako (villain from Japan’s Ju-On: The Grudge/America’s remake).

Donahue’s performance is a one-sided effort, since supporting characters—pardon my pun—sleepwalk through most scenes. Guzman does well in visually representing a shift to the Hag’s middle-world (blue lights, etc.), but views of comatose victims don’t generate equal thrills. Near-death experiences aside, dialogue falls flat as characters fight sleep with no success (a la Nightmare On Elm Street). Jesse Bradford (as Beth’s ex-lover) and Jesse Borrego fumble around under a sofa trying to pick up an adrenaline shot with stone fists, like a parody horror skit passed off as tension. It’s not exactly the most riveting device for constructing danger—and that’s the best we get.

Dead Awake quickly establishes the ferocity of sleep paralysis, only to leak said viciousness like air from a balloon. When the Old Hag strikes once, we scream. Another time, we shiver. By her final entrance down a flight of creaky stairs? Her allure has worn off and we’re ready for some uninterrupted pillow time. There have been better genre works on the theme worth your restless nights (Nils Timm’s Echoes comes to mind). Seek those out in lieu of yet another horror effort that starts with a bang—but ends with a whimper.

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