For this latest review round-up, I take a look at two very different genre films I had the pleasure of catching up with over the last few weeks: Before I Wake from Mike Flanagan and Tom Holland’s Rock Paper Dead.
Before I Wake: Over the years, it has been interesting to watch Flanagan’s career, as he’s consistently challenged himself in various ways, giving us an array of stories that feel wholly unique and yet are so very distinctly a Mike Flanagan film. For anyone who has been following the journey of Before I Wake’s release, this is a project that has long been waiting for a platform in the US, and thankfully Netflix has finally given it a proper home. A stunning mix of heartbreak and horror, Before I Wake is an emotionally-charged genre hybrid that features compelling performances from its trio of leads, and an atypical finale that feels like a huge gut punch (but in the best possible way).
Before I Wake is centered around a grieving couple—Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane)—who lost their son in a tragic accident and have decided to open up their home to a foster kid named Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has terrible issues trying to sleep at night, as he’s being terrorized by an entity known as the “Canker Man.” But there’s a little bit more to Cody’s story, as he’s able to manifest his emotions in some rather powerful ways, from allowing butterflies to materialize in the living room or by making Mark and Jessie’s deceased son appear for brief moments of time, which surprises his new family to say the very least.
As Jessie struggles with whether or not it's fair to use young Cody as a conduit to her son that she still yearns to see, she realizes that there are sinister forces at work, looking to use the boy as a way to collect victims. It’s up to her to fight for her foster son’s well-being and stop the “Canker Man” once and for all. And to say anything more would be a huge disservice to Flanagan’s deeply moving script.
My first experience with Before I Wake actually happened a few years back, as I had a chance to screen the film for notes, and the screening was held just a few days after having to put our dog to sleep, who had been suffering from heart disease. Why is that significant to Before I Wake? Because the song utilized at the end of the film, "Coming Home" by Radical Face, was one of the songs I used to sing to her (yes, I’m a weirdo who likes to sing to her animals), and considering this is a movie about letting go and finding peace after you’ve lost someone, as you can imagine, I was a goddamn emotional wreck by the end of Before I Wake. I went ahead and watched the film again last week as a refresher for this review, and it still hit me pretty damned hard (yeah, I cried). But that just means Flanagan knew exactly what he was doing by utilizing the song (and if you know the lyrics, it almost feels like it was tailor-made for this story), and I think it makes for a lovely way to bring this story to its satisfying conclusion.
As mentioned, Bosworth, Tremblay, and Jane are all equally arresting in Before I Wake, and for very different reasons, but I think the real MVP is Bosworth, whose dogged determination is what drives the film’s final act. Her torturous struggle with her grief over the loss of her actual son, and how it conflicts with the protective feelings she has for Cody, is a thoughtful exploration of the often complex emotions attached to the mourning process, and Bosworth really immerses herself in a role that could have gone a completely different way in lesser hands. Also, now that Before I Wake is finally out, I can say that doting, over-eager dad Thomas Jane is just irresistibly adorable, and I’d love to see more roles like this from the guy who generally gets cast in more “badass” roles (but for good reason, of course).
There’s a tangible heartbeat to Before I Wake that you don’t often see in modern genre films, and I think that’s why I enjoyed it as much as I did each time. Sure, Flanagan has proven time and time again he knows his way around the horror genre and all its glorious tropes and techniques, but to find a way to anchor those frights in some meaningful way is not a feat many filmmakers can pull off this effectively (James Wan is another director who nailed this approach with The Conjuring 2).
Every Flanagan film has proven itself to be uniquely memorable in one way or another, and there’s no denying that Before I Wake is something truly special, a modern fairy tale that’s also something of a horror/drama hybrid that does something very rare, giving us a reason to want all these people to survive the horrific misdeeds of the “Canker Man.” Before I Wake might not nearly be as polished as his latest endeavors like Ouija: Origin of Evil or Gerald’s Game, but there’s something to be said for ambitious storytelling that tries to do something different in a genre that generally offers up a lot of “sameness.”
Movie Score: 4/5
Rock Paper Dead: It’s been a while since we’ve seen Master of Horror Tom Holland at the helm of a full feature film (his last project was the anthological Twisted Tales, so I’m not sure how much that counts), but for the most part he shakes off any directorial rust that might have accumulated for a rather solid slasher outing that has a few rough spots, but overall gives birth to an unusual (potential) icon in “The Doll Maker,” and left me curious about where this story could head in the future.
Written by Kerry Fleming and Victor Miller (of Friday the 13th fame), we’re introduced at the start of Rock Paper Dead to Peter Harris (Luke Macfarlane), who is known as “The Doll Maker,” a deadly serial killer who stalks and tortures women, forcing them to play a game of (you guessed it) “Rock, Paper, Scissors” that determines their fates, all while donning a Kewpie Doll-esque mask. Peter is eventually caught by loose cannon lawman Doyle Dechert (Michael Madsen), and instead of heading to prison, he’s sent away to a mental health facility to deal with his psychological issues, his care being led by Dr. Evelyn Bauer (Tatum O’Neal).
Eventually, Peter is released back into the world, and he moves back into his old home, where he must confront his past sins, all while trying to establish something of a normal life in the present. A nosy reporter/neighbor named Ashley (Jennifer Titus) shows up on Peter’s doorstep one day, looking to interview the infamous former killer, and that’s when things in Rock Paper Dead get a little bit tricky for all parties involved.
Is Rock Paper Dead up there in terms of Holland’s notable genre directorial offerings? Not really, but he does a solid job overall in tackling this rather unpredictable psychological slasher, still making it a worthwhile entry on his illustrious résumé. The story from Fleming and Miller does enough to make “The Doll Maker” an intriguing antagonist/sometimes protagonist (especially in icky flashback scenes where we learn that Peter’s uncle Charles, played by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s John Dugan, used to abuse his nephew, splintering his young psyche and setting him on his destructive path once he got older), with Macfarlane doing his own take on Norman Bates here. It seems fitting, since Holland penned Psycho II, but the actor never really feels like he settles into the challenging role until later on in the film. But once Macfarlane gets there, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
As mentioned, RPD has a few bumps in the road, as some of the dialogue plays a little forced, and there are some technical issues, too. But the biggest issue with Rock Paper Dead comes in the form of Madsen, who just doesn’t really fit the role he’s given here. He’s great at playing the world-weary cop who is confident “The Doll Maker” will strike again, but his delivery often comes off stilted and awkward, and I just don’t think the role was a great fit for the veteran actor. Titus is a lot of fun, though, in Rock Paper Dead, and I thoroughly enjoyed her character’s arc in the film (even if I did see certain reveals coming about a mile away, it didn’t make them any less fun for me).
While it probably won’t be making my favorites list for this year, I was still entertained by Rock Paper Dead, just because it was refreshing to see a slasher film try and mix up the formula a bit with an unconventional approach to its killer (and potential victims). It’s a decent start to what I hear is potentially a trilogy, and I do think “The Doll Maker” shows enough promise here to warrant at least one more Rock Paper Dead film, as there’s definitely more you could do with this character down the line.
Movie Score: 3/5