There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Before I Wake, a 2016 supernatural thriller from writer-director Mike Flanagan. The film is about a young orphan, Cody (Jacob Tremblay, Room), whose dreams manifest as physical entities in the real world, then dissipate when he regains consciousness. Co-written by Flanagan’s frequent collaborator Jeff Howard, Before I Wake stars Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane as Jessie and Mark Hobson, a grieving couple whose son Sean recently drowned. When they adopt Cody, the Hobsons are delighted by the wonders his subconscious conjures up for them at night… until the boy begins having nightmares.
Why watch now?
Because writer-director Ari Aster’s horror film Hereditary opens in theaters this weekend.
Ever since Hereditary’s debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, horror devotees have been spreading the word about this genuinely disturbing, aesthetically accomplished genre picture. Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, an acclaimed sculptor who’s still recovering from the death of her domineering mother when her family suffers more tragedy. Searching for answers in the spirit world, Annie befriends an older woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who helps her understand that the persistent woes the Grahams have experienced may serve a larger malevolent purpose.
Hereditary is lengthy, muted, and slow-paced, with a greater emphasis on elegant visual design and subtle performances than jump-scares. In addition to Collette (playing one of the richest characters of her career), the movie has Gabriel Byrne as Annie’s troublingly passive husband Steve, Alex Wolff as her overwhelmed teenage son Peter, and Milly Shapiro as her eccentric daughter Charlie, who makes strange noises and even stranger art. Aster does just fine with the compulsory horror elements: the eerie apparitions, paranormal threats, and things that go bump in the night (and day). But he’s more concerned with the everyday nightmare of living in a deeply dysfunctional family, unable to escape what could be a lifetime of aggravation and depression.
Before I Wake is nowhere near as heavy as Hereditary, but it also ties fantastical horror elements to common parental anxieties. Even before Cody comes to live with the Hobsons, Jessie is haunted by her memories of Sean’s death. After Cody creates a dream-creature that looks like Sean, Jessie begins to seed her adopted child with more information about her dead son, so Cody’s dreams might become more vivid and effectively bring Sean back to life. Much of this movie is about how moms and dads can create monsters without meaning to, just through the ways they influence what their kids say and do.
Who it’s for
Fans of intelligent, emotionally resonant ghost stories.
Flanagan’s first feature film, Absentia, came out in 2011, and in a very short span of time, he’s developed a well-earned reputation as one of the horror genre’s more thoughtful, ambitious directors. With his sophisticated suspense pictures Oculus and Hush, as well as his adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game and his stylish prequel film Ouija: Origin of Evil, Flanagan has shown a remarkable ability to integrate all the tension and thrills that fans expect into movies that are unusually invested in family dynamics and cultural specificity. He doesn’t deliver the most nerve-wracking or disgusting scare-sequences in the business, but he creates more vivid characters and situations than a lot of his peers.
That said, there are also plenty of creepy beasties in Before I Wake, including a spindly, ravenous creature that Cody dubs “the Canker Man.” Viewers who watch horror films for the same reason they go to amusement parks — because they like to be briefly alarmed then relieved — should find that Before I Wake does what it needs to do. If nothing else, the score by Danny Elfman and the Newton Brothers effectively manipulates the audience, enhancing the magical qualities of Cody’s gifts before driving home the sting.
But once the credits roll, what’s hardest to shake off isn’t the image of the Canker Man, but the faces of all the people who’ve been touched and terrified by Cody’s dream-spawns. Like Collette in Hereditary, Bosworth is incredibly moving in Before I Wake, playing a woman who keeps hoping she’s turned a corner in her life and is moving on to something better, only to find more disappointment, more despair, and more ghosts.
Where to see it
Netflix. Flanagan has had a long, fruitful relationship with the streaming service, which raised the profile of Absentia, and later rescued Before I Wake from oblivion when its original distributor, Relativity Media, had financial trouble. Netflix has since released Flanagan’s Hush and Gerald’s Game, and it will be handling his upcoming TV series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.