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Director: Phillip Guzman

Screenplay: Jeffrey Reddick

Starring: Jocelin DonahueJesse BradfordJesse Borrego

Review: David Stephens

“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them”, said the great writer Edgar Allan Poe once … at the beginning of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3”. But as scary as sleep can apparently be (and popular as a horror film subject), it’s infinitely preferable to some conditions associated with it. (NB: And as this particular writer suffers from severe sleep apnoea, we know what we’re talking about!) “Sleep paralysis” is the biggest source of fear for many people though. It’s as near to a state of death as a living person can become, without actually shuffling off this mortal coil. The still-not-wholly-understood phenomenon has affected humanity throughout the ages and been immortalised in works of art like “The Nightmare”, by Henry Fuseli in 1781. (NB: Which is oddly the second time we’ve referenced that painting within a week, and it’s actually featured in the narrative here). The condition occurs either when you drift off or awaken, and find that you can’t move, speak, or react. It’s also often accompanied by frightening hallucinations, and sometimes these take the forms of malevolent entities crouching on your chest and making breathing difficult. It’s where the word “Nightmare” actually originated from and where the mythology of the “Night Hag” and other global superstitions comes from. So here we have “Dead Awake” which is written by talented American screenwriter and film director Jeffrey Reddick (best known for creating the Final Destination franchise) and directed by Phillip Guzman. Now available on DVD and VOD in the UK, YGROY swaps the warm milk for an energy drink and watches it under a bright light…


After a brief definition and visual example of the above “illness”, we meet Beth Bowman (Jocelin Donahue, the lead from Ti West’s excellent “The House of the Devil”). Beth is a bit frazzled and on a knife edge, recovering from alcoholic addiction, so a surprise Birthday party with her estranged twin sister Kate (also Donahue) isn’t the most welcome idea. Nonetheless they connect again and Beth reveals that she’s suffering from sleep paralysis, and is convinced that some kind of malign entity is trying to strangle her in her “sleep” whilst helpless and restrained. No-nonsense Kate ridicules the idea and offers some pretty shitty advice when she tells her to “…let herself experience her feelings”. Subsequent events do however reveal that Beth’s intuition was pretty on the money and there is something in the century’s old myth about the “Sleeping Ghost” and “Old Hag” syndrome … and now Kate has been targeted for death by a supernatural force that’s just waiting for you to fall asleep…


If you’re thinking that there’s a pretty strong “Elm Street” vibe coming of that synopsis and the film itself … yeah, pretty much. In fact it comes across as a mash-up between “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Ju-On: The Grudge”. And that’s not us lazily using cheap analogies (well, it is, but…), as the DVD box uses quotes stating the very same thing. The fact that Beth has a “Nancy Thompson” streak of grey hair running through her mane also points to that influence. But beyond that description, there IS a case for making a genuinely scary film out of sleep paralysis. Rodney Ascher’s off-kilter quasi-documentary “The Nightmare” (2015) successfully married oh-so-creepy reconstructions of sleep paralysis, with IRL testimonies and disturbing scientific info-dumps. It played to many festival-goers at a number of events, who subsequently felt uneasy about returning to their beds. Unfortunately, DA doesn’t really have the same impact.


Perhaps the worst thing about the narrative is that it’s actually quite dull for long stretches. Donahue actually holds the attention quite well and is noticeably different in her portrayal of the troubled Beth, as oppose to the more confident and pragmatic Kate, even when she’s acting “against” herself. (NB: In one clever scene there are actually three versions of Donahue present at the same time). But the plot framework is very generic and just has characters follow the usual plot strands of; opening incident – frantic research – confrontation with antagonist. There are some really dumb decisions (a couple involving muffed medications) and some characters are staggeringly complacent given what they know and the apparent sense of urgency. Vulnerable would-be-victims are left alone for no real reason, and bad assumptions are made (“It’s not common for people to close their eyes during sleep paralysis”).


Apart from Jesse Borrego as the twitchy doctor and Billy Blair as a marvellously unwound victim who’s found a possible solution, nobody else really makes an impact. A cameo from Lori Petty (“Tank Girl” herself) is oddly stilted and mainly consists of totally unconvincing cry of “Superstitious Madness!” Meanwhile other lines include the dubious; “Doctors are saying it was an asthma attack” … *pause for dramatic effect* … “That’s odd, seeing as she didn’t have asthma”, or the rather head-smacking; “I’ve studied research from all over the world.”, “Did you try online message boards?” “I didn’t think of that”. To be fair, that last example may be intentional humour, but it doesn’t quite pull it off.

It’s a bit of a shame, as some of the sleep paralysis moments are actually quite effective, with tension building as a spider scampers across a frozen face and tears start to helplessly trickle. The “Hag” is quite menacing, although the genre really needs to stop producing manky-faced female villains, with stringy long brunette hair and a penchant for crawling along on all-fours to attack people, At least change the hair colour or something! The “Hag” also suffers a bit from the same issue as the recent “The Bye Bye Man”, in that we know little about the antagonist or their motives, just that they exist and want to cause harm. There’s a nice little “viral” motif that coincidentally echoes some of the ideas in “Bye Bye Man”, but this is never really utilised to any extent.


As far as base concepts go, it’s not really a bad one. But it just suffers from a lack of urgency and invention. The odd sequence shows promise and is pulled off quite stylishly. The scenes where victims are vaguely aware of the waking world during an attack and adjacent characters are totally oblivious to the ensuing murder attempts, are easily the best moments in the plot and actually presented with a chilling flourish. But those moments don’t happen nearly often enough to maintain a solid scare experience. In the end it’s not dead boring and has its moments, but it always feels like it needs one more cup of coffee to engage properly. No competition for Freddy.


DVD Extras: Sleepy-Bye-No-No. Just a trailer

There’s some effective scenes and suspense, and the IRL scenario is decidedly creepy. But the whole thing never really finds its own identity, and becomes a series of Elm Street tropes and generic set-ups. Occasional lacklustre lines and performances don’t help. Promising, but it feels slightly dull and the mash-up comparisons to better films are unavoidable. DoA.
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