Sleep paralysis is a hot topic right now. Understandable, considering it’s the ideal breeding ground for horror movies aside from being completely terrifying. Following on from deadeningly dull documentary feature The Nightmare, Dead Awake takes on this most frightening of phenomenons using a more traditional genre format: that of the demon girl.
Jocelin Donahue, who made such an impact in her breakthrough role in Ti West’s brilliant The House Of The Devil, takes centre-stage once again, after a string of supporting turns, as twin sisters Beth and Kate. Beginning with an intriguing cold open, the movie quickly switches gears to establish Beth as the fuck-up sister, a recovering addict suffering from sleep paralysis.
Beth is so on edge, in fact, that she gets spooked by her own surprise birthday party, not least because her strait-laced sister Kate is there, in an ultimately doomed attempt to make amends after years of difficulty between the two. Although there’s tension between them, Beth turns to Kate after a particularly bad, bed-based episode and…we’re off.
Written by Jeffrey Reddick (he of Final Destination fame), Dead Awake is an odd, slight, creepy little thing. The atmosphere is consistently spooky, while the idea of being a prisoner in your own head, never mind your own bed, is undeniably terrifying. And director Phillip Guzman works with a striking pallette of moody blues and greys to establish a near-constant layer of darkness.
The visuals are strong, a cool moment with a creepy painting recalling The Conjuring 2 (maybe this lady will get her own spinoff too?). And the creature, although nothing particularly new (she looks a bit like a beat-up Samara mixed with Regan) is strikingly presented, a formidable foil who makes her presence known in each and every tussle.
But she’s no match for Donahue, who gives another standout performance in her dual role as Beth and Kate. She’s ably supported by fellow genre player Brea Grant (seen most recently in Beyond The Gates) and an unrecognisable Jesse Bradford, who is apparently still acting and has grown a beard and considerable length of hair to establish his more grown-up persona.
The Bring It On and Swimfan star is a likeable sidekick to Donahue’s tough Final Girl, managing to establish a decent amount of pathos in spite of being saddled with a stock character of sorts. Lori Petty (of Point Break) is another welcome addition as a skeptical doctor who assures her worried patient that “sleep paralysis is harmless.”
A witch doctor of sorts is less effective, and more on the hokey side thanks to a hammy performance from Dexter‘s Jesse Borrego. But his inclusion makes sense in the world of the movie and isn’t nearly as on the nose as the intrusive score, which increases in volume as if to yell “this is really scary!” at the most inopportune moments.
Thankfully, Dead Awake‘s more outlandish elements are grounded by Donahue’s well-judged female lead, who acts rationally throughout and continues to fight in spite of mounting odds. Reddick’s fingerprints are evident in the flick’s dark tone, similar to Final Destination, and the way in which characters are picked off one by one. Thankfully, there is no levity with humour (Bradford’s character could easily have been an annoying comic foil).
It all wraps up rather nicely too, the brave choice made not to tie things up too neatly while similarly not clambouring for a sequel. Far more effective than The Nightmare, in spite of taking the more surrealist route, and anchored by another knockout turn from Jocelin Donahue, Dead Awake is slight but scary, simple but tough and, at times, crawlingly creepy. Fear your bed.
Catch Dead Awake on DVD and Digital from May 15, 2017
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Philip Guzman
Writer(s): Jeffrey Reddick
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Jesse Bradford, Brea Grant, Lori Petty
Release: May 15th, 2017
Studio/ Production Co: Gama Entertainment
Length: 99 minutes