Sleep paralysis has seen a surge of interest from the horror community in the last few years. Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare gave genre fans a narrative horror documentary that shed light on one of sleep’s most terrifying disorders. Dead Awake is one of the first of what I predict will be many horror movies using sleep paralysis as a catalyst for their setup. Dead Awake follows estranged twins, Beth and Kate Bowman, who are brought together again only after sleep paralysis plagues Beth.
When the movie opened with a definition of sleep paralysis I grew excited for the dread that was sure to engulf the story, but instead I got something really familiar. Dead Awake has a good story underneath, but that potential is layered with a whole lot of Nightmare on Elm Street style and influence. Beth (Jocelin Donahue, House of the Devil) has been suffering from some really nasty nightmares about being strangled by an old hag. But because Beth is a recovering addict, her family isn’t quick to believe her stories of hags and near death. When Kate tells her to stop fighting her nightmares Beth doesn’t make it back to the waking world, sending us off with her sister and friends to find out what really killed her.
We meet the hag almost immediately but never learn anything about her other than she spreads with fear. Basically, if you talk about her she can end up in other people’s nightmares much like another dream demon we know. At first, I thought the NOES vibe was just me because it's permanently ingrained in my memory but other things kept creeping up like a very similarly designed funeral scene and bathtub sequence. Kate even meets with another character on a scenic bridge to discuss how she’s going to survive her dreams.
Like I said above, we never get any mythology to go along with the nightmare hag. The closest the story gets is a mysterious doctor who has been studying sleep death his entire life. But even he has no explanation for her, she just exists. It’s also unclear for a while whether sleep paralysis is a thing in this world or not. Not one of the characters seems to have any inkling as to what it is until they go to a sleep clinic where they talk to Dr. Sykes, played sparingly by Lori Petty, and she explains it to them. It becomes clear why they want to include Lori Petty’s character later but in a world with the internet, she seems unnecessary.
Jocelin Donahue does a great job with the material she is given, and I hope to see her pop up in more genre fare in the future. Dead Awake feels a bit rushed and while I really enjoy Reddick’s writing on the first two Final Destination movies this one drops the ball on a potentially terrifying concept. I would like to see a more fleshed out version of the script with more back story on the hag. Supposedly she is something evil and ancient but all the audience gets is a few scary lighting jumps and brief moments of strangulation.
There is competent filmmaking behind Dead Awake and I do look forward to Guzman and Reddick’s next film 200 Hours which also deals with the dangers of sleeping. On a positive note, Dead Awake would make a good introductory horror film for someone who is unfamiliar with the classics.