I feel like the best movies in a genre are not only the best because they execute the criteria to be in their genre perfectly, but because they include memorable, well written, and relatable characters that develop throughout the story and help the movie make a specific point about human nature. In the past, director Mike Flanagan has proven he is a master at creating suspense, but I didn’t think of him as a new master of horror. Now that I saw Before I Wake, I must admit that he might have made one of my favorite horror movies of all time.
Before I Wake tells the story of a couple who recently lost their child in an accident and seek to adopt a foster kid in order to kit their relationship and fill the hole left by their son. The extraordinary thing about Cody is all of his dreams become reality, but so do his nightmares.
At the core of the movie is a story about different ways of grief, a theme that is explicitly stated in one of Jessie’s group therapy sessions. Her husband, Mark, does not visit these sessions and Jessie admits the two have become estranged. Jessie starts out as a sympathetic character, seems to be a great mother figure and the movie makes you think she is dedicated to turning her grief into something good. Flanagan quickly turns these expectations upside down, when Cody’s gift becomes apparent, and she utilizes it for her own. The audience is immediately intrigued by her morally ambivalent character and watching a desperate mother use an innocent child to avoid dealing with her loss tears you apart. I couldn’t help but think about Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”, also a tale about how unhealthy trying to resurrect the dead is. Mark is a little less interesting of a character because he only works in contrast to his wife and shows the alternative to giving in to the despair. He is the one who resists the urge to psychologically abuse a little kid and shows the audience how to deal with grief in a dignified way, whilst his wife doesn’t stop until she’s responsible for his death (?). One could read Jessie’s behavior as an attempt to use Cody as a way to get her son back without developing a deeper connection with the kid she is obliged to care for. For her, a foster kid is just a way to fill the hole and replace her son and not a separate person she can bond with. In the end, she realizes that Cody has his own needs and should not just function as a placeholder for her dead son, which is an uplifting and for the genre a rather unusual ending for a horror film.
The other interesting character is Cody, the 8-year-old boy Jessie and Mark adopt. His ability to let his dreams and nightmares come to life is a representation of how children deal with their emotions when they sleep. Not only did Flanagan find an appealing way to show the dreams, he also incorporated a monster representing his nightmares that is truly frightening. I was slightly disappointed that the ending spells this out and unambiguously reveals the origin of his nightmares, but I get that it might be more satisfying to some and it gives Cody a backstory that is even more tragic than what we knew of before. Cody highlights the importance of having a safe childhood, and how much damage bouncing around in the foster system can do to a child.
All of this affluent thematic background enhances an already great film with beautiful visuals, stellar acting, a creepy monster, and a dense atmosphere and elevates it to something greater than just an ordinary horror flick. Before I Wake is a great film and definitely worth checking out, not just for horror fans, but for everybody.