In my house, waking up is often an issue. But in Phillip Guzman’s Dead Awake, it’s a death sentence. The characters in this movie are all afflicted by sleep paralysis, the phenomenon in which the dreamer’s mind awakens but their body remains immobilized. It happens to most people, once or twice. It happened to eight of them in Rodney Ascher’s quasi-documentary, The Nightmare, from 2015, which was scarier and more interesting than this. It didn’t need a conceit, either, whereas Dead Awake has a particularly dumb one. It suggests that the paralysis is courtesy of a demonic hag, who climbs atop you and strangles you while you sleep. Or while you don’t sleep, maybe. It’s kind of unclear.
You can see the first major problem with Dead Awake, I’m sure: It takes an inherently frightening premise and runs it through the genre wringer. The real-life condition is often accompanied by scarily-lifelike hallucinations; sinister visitors and suffocation. But nobody is boring enough to envision their supernatural nemesis as yet another long-haired, jump-cutting ghoul. This one crawls down stairs, along hallways, through doors, up and onto beds and sofas. But the movie’s terrible FX and stale direction have the whole production move at a similar pace. Dead Awake drags itself around, and when it stops long enough for you to focus on it, you realise how ugly it is.
You can imagine what a skilled writer or director could do with this idea; how novel the scares could have been. But Guzman and screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick seem to have made a conscious effort to limit the potential of such a ubiquitous real-world phenomenon. All their attention is devoted to a scabby bogeywoman, copy-pasted from The Grudge, The Ring, and the countless horror flicks that have emulated those movies since. It has the death-by-nightmare vibe of Friday the 13th, the pass-it-on contagiousness of death as seen in the Final Destination saga. All the tropes and trappings, too. A local expert, another local expert, and a surviving victim, living now in delirious isolation. Everyone gets their information from tattered old volumes that illustrate how sleep paralysis has beset cultures all throughout history. The characters read them aloud, and nobody is supposed to laugh, but there I am.
There’s another problem with Dead Awake, a big one: The acting is appalling. Jocelin Donahue plays twins, Beth and Kate, one of whom is a recovering alcoholic, the other a condescending go-getter, though the performance is so flat that it’s often difficult to tell which is which. That is, of course, until Beth dies in her sleep. She’d mentioned her paralysis to Kate, and to her boyfriend, Evan (Jesse Bradford), so when she snuffs it the pair of them set out to unravel the mystery. They visit a sleep specialist (Lori Petty), and then they visit another sleep specialist (Jesse Borrego). They all try to stay awake and at various points they all fail to do so, and of course there’s an obligatory, elaborate ploy to battle the demonic hag on her own turf which makes very little sense and builds towards an unsatisfying cliffhanger ending that doesn’t really resolve anything.
Sometimes a solid, game cast can elevate mediocre material, but in Dead Awake everyone phones in a performance that ranges somewhere from lifeless to laughable, and because they care so little about the story the audience, likewise, can’t fathom any kind of real engagement. The mystery is boring, the characters aren’t likeable, the scares are so formulaic and familiar that they arrive with about as much impact as the expositional dialogue exchanges, and the whole thing is so rote and derivative that, ironically, the only thing it’s likely to do is make you hope bedtime arrives sooner rather than later.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.