Dead Awake (Movie Review)

Dead Awake (Movie Review)
6 10

PLOT: After her twin sister Beth succumbs to a fatal fit of sleep paralysis, Kate (Jocelin Donahue) must protect all nearby friends and family members from an ancient evil curse known as Old Hag Syndrome.

REVIEW: In what appears to be his first feature length script since the blasphemously unneeded DAY OF THE DEAD redo in 2008, FINAL DESTINATION creator Jeffrey Riddick (TAMARA) has opted to essay the truly terrifying real-life topic of sleep paralysis in DEAD AWAKE, the unoriginally titled new thriller FilmRise is releasing into limited theaters Friday, May 12th. Directed with slightly above adequate aplomb by Phillip Guzman (2:22, A KISS AND A PROMISE), this straight-forward, easy to follow thriller is at its best when disseminating historical information, medical statistics and mystifying lore behind the century-old sleep-affliction, even if the visual reinforcement of such isn’t always as nearly compelling or convincing. That is, the notion of sleep paralysis itself comes off far more frightening than any corresponding imagery the film has to offer. In that regard, much like Rodney Ascher’s similarly-themed 2015 quasi-doc THE NIGHTMARE, DEAD AWAKE is bound to strike more fear and unease in those who already experience paralytic slumber than those who do not. It preaches to the alerted!

Beth and Kate (Jocelin Donahue) are twin sisters who aren’t very close anymore. The former, fresh out of drug rehab, is a dourly withdrawn introvert. The latter is an extroverted social worker with a firmer hold on life. When they reunite for their own birthday party, Beth confides to a small group of friends that she’s been having severe trouble sleeping. She claims that upon suddenly awakening, she cannot move her body at all, and worse, she feels as if she’s being attacked a person inside the room with her. Only her friend Linda (Brea Grant) seems to empathize, while Kate’s bearded, ponytailed Bohemian painter boyfriend (Jesse Bradford) vows to protect her from further harm. When paying a visit to Dr. Sykes (Lori Petty), a sleep expert, Beth is told sleep paralysis is more common than thought, affecting some three million people annually around the globe. The doc even ensures Kate that sleep paralysis is totally harmless, with hallucinations being the extent of the trauma. No monsters, no phantoms, just intense mental projection.

Obviously not, as Beth ends up croaking in her sleep shortly after. The cause? A severe asthma attack, this despite Beth never having asthma in her life. Kate is approached at her sister’s funeral by an ominous former doctor named Hassan Davies, who was banished by Dr. Sykes for his rogue research on the true perils of sleep paralysis. Hassan knows of this so called being that enters bedrooms, paralyzes victims and, for lack of a better explanation, petrifies people to death. Dating back centuries is something known as Old Hag Syndrome, or the Sitting Ghost, an anecdotal theory that a supernatural force indeed materializes, paralytically suffocates its victims, and coldly does so while each victim is knowingly awake to witness their own potential death with absolutely no line of recourse to help. It’s a cool conceit, balefully bizarre to boot, but the problem is in the visual execution and inherent limitations of such. To credibly convey sleep paralysis, an actor is left only to express with their eyes. Their bodies must remain immovable, and to compensate, it’s all about how an actor comports their open eyes to express a range necessary emotion.

Donahue, like the rest, does a pretty passable job at this, but it’s almost an unfairly thankless task that, no matter how good of an actor you are, tends to lack the requisite dramatic dynamism need to make for an exciting experience. As it is, when the ghoulish, grungy-haired boogeyman does finally appear – often pictured in a bluish hue to mark when one is in a mode of sleep paralysis – it not only calls to mind the evil baddie in SINISTER, but the repetitive action can only extend to the growling ghoul lurching over the victim and more or less choking them to various states of moribundity. So, for as worthily fascinating as the topic of sleep paralysis is for a horror movie, trying to visually reenact such a phenomenon has proven awfully tricky. Not just here, but in THE NIGHTMARE as well. The superior difference is, in DEAD AWAKE, at least we’re given an historical background and educational reference points on the nature of sleep paralysis that allows us to better understand the issue. Comprehend it fully? No. But to grasp it a bit further? Helpfully, yes.

Where the movie tends to flirt with dismissible lunacy is the way in which The Old Hag passes from one person to another. Apparently, it’s the refrain of FDR. Fear itself. All one has to do in order to be plagued by sleep paralysis is merely believe in it, and it will come. At least, that’s the indolent explication Reddick has included in the DEAD AWAKE screenplay. If you simply tell someone about your own sleep paralysis and convince them in so doing, all they have to do is wholeheartedly believe it and the Old Hag will be conjured. This theory obviates any shred of evidence under scientific law, and thereby tends to sully any credibility the story had banked heretofore. If the postulation held any veracity whatsoever, it would seem to implicate Guzman as directly culpable for every healthy set of eyes that, after seeing DEAD AWAKE, developed a case of sleep paralysis. Ironically, in the world of DEAD AWAKE, not seeing it would actually prove most beneficial. More ironically yet, here’s a bare blessing to do so!

Extra Tidbit: This is not to be confused with DEAD AWAKE (2001) or DEAD AWAKE (2010).
Source: AITH



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