I am not going to lie when I say that I never heard of sleep paralysis until the last couple years. With THE NIGHTMARE documentary and, now, DEAD AWAKE, the phenomenon is going public and utilizing it for storytelling is coming full force. For those still hidden in the dark, sleep paralysis is when an individual is typically in transition of falling asleep or waking up, but is conscious of their surroundings without the physical ability to react. While it initially sounds simple, people who experience this usually have their eyes open and have frightening hallucinations that they simply have to endure. What makes this so fascinating is that people all over the world not only experience this, but tend to have the same visions. These visions include the shadow people, which can be interpreted as paranormal entities, and the Old Hag, which is when you see or feel a being sitting on your chest, typically causing the person to not breathe for a period of time. This Old Hag experience is what ends up driving the plot for DEAD AWAKE.
Kate (Jocelin Donahue) is the more carefree sister in a pair of twins. Her sister (also played by Donahue, “Orphan Black” style) is suffering from sleep paralysis, but it is shrugged off as a mere symptom of a recovering addict. The two end up sharing a psychic experience and Kate realizes too late that her sister is suffering from something far more sinister. Her sister dies from what the autopsy describes as asthma related, but that’s odd because she doesn’t have asthma. Kate beings to have the same experiences when she goes to sleep and the sleep paralysis spreads like a disease to her group of friends. When the nightmares become too real, as a Samara-like entity tries to suffocate them in their sleep, Kate realizes it’s only time until they all end up dead. She meets Hassan (Jesse Borrego), a whole other level of crazy who provides Kate with theories of beings who kill people during states of sleep paralysis.
While he is clearly out of his mind, what he says hits close to home, but these theories are illogical in the movie universe and the victims play like characters out of one of the many NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels. The more adult-like characters, like Kate’s parents and Lori Petty as a doctor (yes, a doctor), are quick to dismiss any notion of the supernatural, but their ignorance of course leads to dire consequences.
While the premise carries plenty to be excited about, the potential to create a new cinematic boogeyman falls flat as the Hag resembles too much of the villains made famous during the J-horror remake crazy that populated the genre during the mid 2000s. She crawls down stairs, accompanied by jittering post effects and long black hair that you might expect coming out of a well. It doesn’t help that the same effect is used every time someone closes their eyes and this gets old real fast.
What really drives DEAD AWAKE is Donahue, the much-underused actress who took on the babysitting gig from hell in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and starred in the best short in the anthology film, HOLIDAYS. She really has this honest aura on the screen that helps make her characters sympathetic. While she attempts to make the most of familiar territory, the material she’s given feels a bit stale. As she plays our modern Nancy Thompson, it gets awkward whenever she meets with Hassan who feels like more of a danger than any hag. Genre fans will enjoy seeing Brea Grant (HALLOWEEN 2, BEYOND THE GATES) on the screen, but she’s pushed into the foreground and isn’t feature too much.
What I would have liked to see is more boundaries being pushed. I wasn’t scared at any point during the film and the traditional “let’s research our ghost” moments felt dated and slowed the film down a bit. Some of the logic towards the third act on how to defeat this entity is questionable, but you’re forced to just simply shrug. DEAD AWAKE feels safe and I’m sure those who suffer from sleep paralysis feel anything but.
DEAD AWAKE is now in select theaters in NYC and LA as well as available On Demand.