Stories centering on a cult are an interesting horror subgenre. It’s always fascinating to be introduced to a new group of strange characters, led by an even stranger character, who basks in the glow of their worship. Sometimes there is a supernatural element at play, other times, it’s just the evils of humanity that drive the story forward. But it’s always interesting to see this level of arrogance and charisma gather a group of followers and watch the dastardly things they will get up to in the name of “a higher purpose.” Waking Karma, directed by Carlos Montaner and Liz Fania Werner (who also penned the screenplay) is an interesting addition to this corner of horror storytelling.

At a glance, Karma (Hannah Christine Shetler) is a pretty normal teenager. She lives with her single mother, she texts obsessively with her friends, she is excited to go away to college next year (though she worries about the toll that will take on her mother). Sunny (Kimberly Alexander) had Karma young and the pair have been virtually inseparable for most of Karma’s life. But Karma is at that age where she is beginning to pull away and to seek independence. Particularly from her past.

Karma’s father is the vicious leader of a strange cult. Sunny managed to escape when Karma was born, and Paul (Michael Madsen) has been on the run from the authorities for years. While the pair live in relative safety, knowing that he is miles away and being hunted by the government, they still live in the shadow of that past. Karma is teased mercilessly at school and has trouble forming connections with any of her peers because they all know the truth about her father. It has become a huge burden for her, and fuels her desire to break away and lead her own life somewhere else.

On Karma’s seventeenth birthday, the past catches up with them. After an exciting day at the beach, they return home to find a threatening note from Paul, promising that Sunny will never be able to keep his daughter from him. Though terrified, Sunny snaps into action and loads Karma into the car, along with a couple of small bags. They head into the woods, to the home of an old friend who had also escaped the cult years ago. Butch (Bradley Fisher) and Priscilla (Christine Sloane) live a quiet life of off-the-grid anonymity and are happy to provide Karma and Sunny with sanctuary.

Karma, naturally, finds the series of events frightening. She knows who her father was, but Sunny has never disclosed to her what life in Paul’s cult was like or what she was subjected to. So Karma is navigating this entire situation blind. And her fear is palpable. Eventually, she begins to piece together that her father was some sort of a prophet who murdered a series of young girls in an attempt to achieve reincarnation. He believes that Karma is the key to unlocking everlasting life. And he will stop at nothing to find her.

Waking Karma is a well paced thriller that builds itself on some interesting ideas. Themes of nurture, of parenthood weave through the story and present some complex choices for the characters along the way. 

Michael Madsen’s performance as Paul is (unsurprisingly) a highlight. When he finally enters the story, he commands attention. It’s impossible to turn away from his presence. He is at once odious and fascinating. Like any good cult leader, he spins webs and twists truths around in a confounding way. But what sets him apart from the Jeremiah Sands of the world is that his tirades aren’t lofty and high-minded. His rhetoric is rooted in something darker. Not just evil but kind of…slimy. His primary goal is to just mess with your head.  His mind games aren’t in place to test, but to punish. Everything that he says has an ulterior meaning; nothing can be taken at face value. He finds joy in confusing his victims and running them in circles.

Watching him play with Karma and twist her words really makes us realize just how dangerous he is. He can’t be reasoned with, even though reason is part of the argument that he seems to be bringing to the table. As Butch states, “He wants to break you.” He is a force that seems impossible to beat, and can only be survived. But that being said, as the audience, we want nothing more than to see Karma beat him, and we have no trouble cheering for her as she takes on this seemingly impossible task.

The film is interesting but it doesn’t quite hit the mark in the climax. There is a lot of build and the story doesn’t quite reach the height that it seems to be aiming for. And that’s okay - it’s still a good watch and well executed film. The cast is wonderful and Shetler, in particular, does a great job at bringing her character to life. In Karma, we see all of the independence of being on the brink of adulthood, but all of the vulnerability that comes with being at the edge of that precipice.

Movie Score: 3/5