If you or anyone you know has experienced sleep paralysis, you know how “freaky”, for lack of a better word, the phenomena is. There’s no definitive cause for it, as apparently it’s one of those things – along with yawning – that lazy scientists haven’t bothered to figure out yet, but it results in a feeling of motionlessness during the sleep-wake cycle that leads to frightening feelings of panic and choking, along with hallucinations. Although some people are more likely to experience sleep paralysis than others, it’s something that can happen to anyone with varying degrees of frequency. It’s the type of conceit that offers a wide range of possibilities for filmmakers, with one of those approaches being “supernatural psychological horror” – like in Phillip Guzman’s Dead Awake (2017).
Guzman’s film follows Beth Bowman seeking help and solace from her twin sister Kate (both played by Jocelin Donahue) as she continues to experience worsening sleep paralysis. Beth insists that she is getting attacked by some otherworldly force known as ‘the hag’ while in this state, but Kate doesn’t begin to take this seriously until the night she also experiences the same encounter. This pushes her to research “the truth” behind this phenomenon with Beth’s hipster artist boyfriend Evan (Jesse Bradford) and figure out a way to stop the supernatural terror that’s apparently out to kill.
Dead Awake is a classic case of “good on paper but terrible in execution.” No pun intended but this movie is frightfully boring. It’s another poor unfortunate instance of bad indie horror filmmaking. The main character, the more well-put together twin Kate, is so flat and uninteresting that I literally could not tell the difference between her and her sleep-deprived twin Beth until nearly a half-hour in. All of the side characters are two-dimensional stereotypes and no one goes through any arc or change. I’m sure that it probably seemed otherwise in the script, but it all comes off as moments shoehorned into scenes that don’t warrant them. The writing is propelled by terrible out of nowhere conveniences (like everyone suffering from sleep paralysis at the same goddamn time) and the acting is abysmal to the point of hilarious distraction. This movie feels like a repeat of Rings (2017) and is very indicative of the bad horror schlock that Dan so often gets saddled with reviewing.
Weirdly, you wouldn’t think that a movie about people sleeping would be so uninteresting, because we as audiences have been spoiled by so many good sleep-related films over the years. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) and Inception (2010) to name a couple, but those films are adept at visualizing both the character’s dream state and their interactions in it. Yes, those movies both had considerably bigger budgets than Dead Awake, but the film also puts itself in a bind due to the very nature of its subject matter. Characters can’t run around and fight demonic pedophiles if they can’t move. If anything, this film suffers from being more like Awake (2007) than A Nightmare On Elm Street, the latter being such a strongly apparent influence on the story to the point of including a bathtub scene. The fear in this film is supposed to come from you putting yourself in the shoes of these characters experiencing this Poe-like insanity-inducing torture; being conscious of the fact that you are about to be choked to death and you can’t do anything about it. Yes, it is true that the terribly uninteresting and poorly acted characters don’t make you care about what’s happening to them, but there’s honestly nothing visually interesting about seeing some vague-looking creature with the same character design as killers from The Grudge (2004) and The Ring (2002) choking someone out. It’s shot the same way every single time.
I find it very hard to give Dead Awake credit for trying or even for accomplishing the bare minimum because this is also one of those movies that tries to explain too much, and I hate it when movies do tell instead of show. There’s so much exposition and explanations of the science behind sleep paralysis and the behaviors of ‘the hag’ that any fear of the unknown is completely undone. Yes, you end up knowing Freddy Kreuger’s backstory, but it’s not like anybody fucking knows how he’s able to go into people’s dreams and kill them other than “he wants revenge”. You just go along with it because Freddy Kreuger is scary and he has style backing up his kills. Dead Awake tries so hard to be serious and scare you with scientific realism while also scaring you with the paranormal at the same time that you don’t know how you’re supposed to react to anything. You can’t experience the voyeuristic sense of terror that you get from a monster movie while also relating to someone’s real life suffering.
This really is just a failure of a movie, plain and simple. It had a lot of potential but ended up falling flat. The occasional moments of deft visual storytelling are nice to see, even if they aren’t very subtle, and I give the film credit for making me want to look up more about sleep paralysis. However, what you’re left with at the end of the day is another poorly made horror movie that’ll fade into obscurity until some sadistic horror aficionado digs it up again in 25 years for yucks. Even then I’m sure you’ll still be able to sleep fine, and not be afraid of what lies in your dreams.