The Persistence of Fairytales: Mike Flanagan’s “BEFORE I WAKE” (2016)

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One of the great, enduring qualities of the Horror genre is that there isn’t just one type of horror film. There are many sub-genres and intensity levels; most everyone so inclined is able to find something they like. Horror’s purpose is to shine a light on the parts of life, and ourselves, that not only scare us but also hold us in awe. It is our reminder that there is so much we are not in control of and so much still unknown.

When we get older, we realize the fairytales we were told as children were scrubbed and sanitized versions of their origins. Full of violence and blood, there were few happy endings. Being older, and having really lived, we are drawn to those origins. We come to know in our guts that no one gets through life unscarred and blameless. We learn to appreciate the beauty in the darkness; if we are willing to honestly look at all things, including ourselves.

Mike Flanagan’s film, BEFORE I WAKE, has the feel of a modern fairytale along with horror and an undercurrent of sadness. There are profound loss and a desperate searching that exposes the darker sides of the characters. But there is also beauty and a redemption, of sorts. The film has a depth beyond the jump scares of current popular horror. Directed by Flanagan and co-written with Jeff Howard, BEFORE I WAKE is another example of his unique ability to shine a light into the more complicated regions of the human heart.

Mark (Thomas Jane) and Jessie (Kate Bosworth) are a young couple navigating life after the death of their young son, Sean (Antonio Evan Romero). In an attempt to move on and heal, they take in Cody (Jacob Tremblay), a young foster boy with a very troubling past.  His social worker, Natalie (Annabeth Gish), tells them Cody has been in several placements, each ending in neglect and abandonment. Mark and Jessie feel an immediate attachment to Cody and are determined to be a family.

They quickly learn Cody has a special ability. He is able to manifest anything in his dreams.  Inevitably, he is able to bring back Sean for short amounts of time each night. What starts as a miracle, quickly becomes a point of contention as Mark and Jessie argue over the ethics of using Cody to get to their dead son or a simulation of him. Jessie becomes obsessive and wants to push harder, while Mark finds himself bonding with Cody and wanting to protect him.

The couple learns there is a dark side to Cody’s gift that he is desperately trying to control. Along with beautiful phantom butterflies, Cody is pursued by a dark malevolent being he calls the Canker Man who is seemingly behind the mysterious disappearances that are following him from home to home. Jessie finds herself faced with making a final peace with the past in order to try and save what is left of her family. Only in helping Cody fight his demons can she have a future.

Most fairytales start out with a character’s loss and the pursuit to get the thing, or person back. Along the way, the character realizes they must make sacrifices in order to get what they long for; they must leave parts of themselves by the wayside. In the end, they may find that who they end up becoming, and what they end up finding turns out to be something they never imagined. The price can have a terrible beauty.