A demonic hag makes a sleep disorder a death sentence in Phillip Guzman’s sleep-paralysis thriller.
A straightforward genre exploitation of the phenomenon described in Rodney Ascher’s quasi-doc The Nightmare, Dead Awake revolves around the unfortunate victims of sleep paralysis, whose minds awaken from sleep while their bodies remain immobilized. Making things worse in this case, Phillip Guzman’s film offers a supernatural creature who terrorizes these paralyzed sleepers, threatening to suffocate them before they can wake. As problematic as it sometimes was, Ascher’s nonfiction pic milked the premise much more effectively than this inert thriller, which is most likely to frighten viewers who begin nodding off and fear they’ll be unable to rouse themselves to leave the theater.
Playing twins, Jocelin Donahue stars as Beth, a recovering addict, and Kate, her condescending sister. Beth has been losing rest due to sleep paralysis, not understanding the problem or wanting to talk about it with her friends. While boyfriend Evan (Jesse Bradford) supports her, others are inclined to think Beth’s haggard state might be due to a relapse. Defending herself against this notion with Kate, Beth tells her what’s going on; Kate takes her to a sleep specialist (Lori Petty), who explains that this condition afflicts a large percentage of the population at some point and is nothing to worry about.
That night, the same thing happens to Kate: Finding herself wide awake but immobile, she stares with open eyes as a spider descends toward her face, then crawls across it. Though the film’s FX make the encounter pretty difficult to believe, it certainly makes an impression on Kate. Once awake, she rushes to find Beth, who has been killed in her dreams.
Kate and Evan set out to solve the mystery of this death-by-nightmare phenomenon, getting help from a researcher (Jesse Borrego) who is less sanguine about sleep paralysis than the previous expert. Through him, they learn about “the old hag syndrome” — in which paralysis sufferers are visited by a creepy-crawly crone whose jump-cutty movements may put horror fans in mind of Samara from the Ring films.
Clearly, Guzman and screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick put more stock in this boogeyman (or -woman) angle than in the real-world phenomenon, which would seem to offer a more novel source of scares. (To be fair, the real-world condition is often accompanied by hallucinations of malicious visitors and suffocation.) But as generic paranormal mysteries go, this is an awfully dull one, filled with dead air and stiff direction. As we start to meet more and more people who’ve had encounters with the Old Hag, the pic begins to be all about taking drugs to stay awake, using elaborate systems to get just a tiny amount of sleep without being unconscious so long that one might be killed. But unlike Nightmare on Elm Street and other it-comes-in-your-dreams frighteners, Dead Awake isn’t likely to make anyone in the real world scared of bedtime.
Production company: Aristar Entertainment Group
Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Jesse Bradford, Brea Grant, Jesse Borrego, Lori Petty
Director: Phillip Guzman
Screenwriter: Jeffrey Reddick
Producers: Phillip Guzman, Philip Marlatt, Kurt Wehner
Executive producers: A.J. Gutierrez, Jeffrey Reddick, LeeLee Wellberg
Director of photography: Dominique Martinez
Production designer: Kurt Wehner
Costume designer: Debra Sugarman
Editor: Peter Devaney Flanagan
Composer: Marc Vanocur
Casting director: Neely Gurman