★★☆☆☆ – Dead Awake by Phillip Guzman promises to stop you from sleeping ever again. It’s a big promise to make, and one that it doesn’t live up to.
Exploring the condition of sleep paralysis – being caught in limbo between dreaming and waking and not being able to move – the film has found a perfect niche for the horror genre in an area little explored. Bringing to life the idea of ‘Old Hag Syndrome’ and evil visitings during the paralysis, it’s an original concept that has potential for an incredibly frightening cinematic experience. Unfortunately, this film isn’t it.
‘Old Hag Syndrome’ is the alternative name for sleep paralysis. As sufferers often experience dark hallucinations and an oppressive weight on their chest, the collective feeling for this is likened to a demonic hag pressing down on the victim and inducing terror whilst they are unable to move or speak. This seems aptly horrifying when you think about waking up completely immobile in the middle of the night – especially when the sufferers all note a similar experience of this so-described ‘hag’.
It’s this evil entity that serves as the antagonist of Dead Awake. Kate Bowman (Jocelin Donahue) discovers the hag through the mysterious death of her twin sister Beth (also Donahue), soon finding out that the creature latches onto those suffering from sleep paralysis. Teaming up with Beth’s artist boyfriend Evan (Jesse Bradford), the two must stop the entity from delivering them the same fate – enlisting the help of eccentric sleep disorder expert Hassan (Jesse Borrego) in the process. Orange is the New Black’s Lori Petty also makes an appearance as the dismissive Dr Sykes, out to disprove that paranormality has anything to do with her patient’s sleep disorders, much to Kate’s dismay.
The film itself is visually very impressive. Utilising lighting and tone shifts to move between the dream-world and reality, Dead Awake shows rather than tells in its scary moments – but its let down by a badly composed monster. These scary moments are populated by a creature that’s somewhere between The Exorcist and The Ring, but on a B-Movie budget, making the frights originate from cheap jump scares rather than truly terrifying moments. It could be forgiven if not for the attacks being solely based on strangling – the close-up tension of these moments of asphyxiation are ruined by the design of the hag, and without a motive, the intensity soon fizzles out. What we are left with is a Halloween gimmick whos hands-on approach soon destroys any creepy atmosphere; with all subtlety stomped into non-existence.
Guzman clearly has taken some inspiration from A Nightmare on Elm Street with his film, as well as giving vibes of 2016’s Lights Out. Whilst Freddy Krueger and Diana had motive and nuance to their characters however, the hag remains a mystery to the audience from start to finish. We don’t know why she loves to strangle people, where she’s come from, or what she even is – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when considered against the lack of introspection of sleep paralysis the film doesn’t have much to offer in the way of narrative. There’s a creature that will strangle you in your sleep if you happen to suffer from the condition. That’s it.
There’s some odd shot choices and stilted movement between cityscapes and indoor environments, and a lot of dreary colour grading which makes the film feel dull. There’s also some distractingly bad dialogue. Hassan in particular reads as a pervert rather than an oddball, getting a little too intense and breathy in his conversational scenes.
In terms of the rest of the performance, the actors are doing their best with some heavy-handed tropes. The determined scientists, the tortured artist, the sleepy old people (I’m not really sure how else to describe the parents in this film) – there’s nothing particularly interesting that offers a development arc. It should be noted however that Donahue does an excellent job of acting as both twins when necessary, defining their different characteristics and accentuating their personality even when both appear on screen.
With some saving graces, but not enough to carry a struggling narrative, Dead Awake doesn’t deliver on its promise to keep you up at night. Recognisably, it has some truly original moments which stand to its testament, and its representation of sleeping limbo and the waking world is done in brilliant fashion. However, bad costume design, an awful lack of subtlety, and dreary character tropes stops the film in its tracks to becoming a horror film of note. It’s a shame, as the idea could have been fantastically played out if it had been given the creeping dread of The Witch, or It Follows, but instead, it falls to the wayside as a Wes Craven fanfic.
Dead Awake, certificate 15, is released on DVD and digital Monday 15th May, courtesy of Solo Media and Matchbox Films.
This article was originally posted on The National Student.