A Netflix film directed by Mike Flanagan, Before I Wake is a 2016 horror film that builds on the fear of adoption and what secrets a child may bring. But this one has a twist. Unlike other scary adopted child films, this one offers Cody (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy who hides a strange ability to manifest dreams. The danger then comes from a creature that hunts him and all the people who care for him. Like a Typhoid Mary of murderous ghosts, he moves from one family to the next leaving suffering in his wake.
This is legitimately a visually stunning film. The action is paced well and the characters feel fully developed with a weird, creepy plot that doesn’t lag or veer from its dark fantasy roots. I don’t know if I’d count it as a full blown horror though simply because, while the imagery is sometimes upsetting, it never becomes utterly hopeless or bleak.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
What this film succeeds at by leaps and blinds though is its portrayal of grief as an open wound that frequently needs tending. While the parental figure protagonists grow into their grief in different ways, the young boy they adopt carries the extra burden of tears of guilt and fear. His grief is like a miasma sucking at his very soul, and the film works hard to portray this complex emotion in a way that feels real and tangible despite the fantastic elements. I’d warn people who’ve lost a child against it though because it may be too triggering in places.
The final scenes are intriguing and make perfect sense, but they also turn the film into more of a dark fairytale than a flat-out horror. Ive talked before about my main problem with The Conjuring franchise — that the stakes are never that high since none of the main characters ever die. This happens here too when father Mark (Thomas Jane) is murdered by the monster yet somehow is wished back into existence at the end. It makes all the hard work, growth, and suffering Jessie (Kate Bosworth) endures after his death feel meaningless since now everything will return to normal. For a film about grief and death, this moment undercuts the tone and theme of the film.
Ultimately, this ending wraps up a little too neatly, with some horrific implications for the boundaries between life and death. If death can be wished away, what other horrifying powers can Cody conjure just by dreaming? I ended up more concerned than relieved, and perhaps that’s the intention.
Minor drawbacks: The effects look good but will undoubtedly age swiftly. Also, the way the adopting parents’ child originally died is a bit confusing. But again, if you just go with it, it’s no big deal.