Sleep paralysis has become a very popular storytelling device because the real-life phenomenon is so frightening that it practically writes itself—the feeling of being conscious but unable to move while having horrifying hallucinations is some scary stuff. So what better home than horror to tell that story, right? Phillip Guzman’s Dead Awake is about exactly that (sleep paralysis), only he takes a fascinating subject and spins it into a very familiar narrative. In it, a young woman must save herself and her friends from an ancient evil that stalks its victims through sleep paralysis.
There’s no doubting that Dead Awake was onto something with sleep paralysis—it’s such an alluring subject that begs to be explored with horror—but it also reminds us that just because the concept is interesting, doesn’t mean it should be turned into a feature length film. That’s the problem Guzman runs into, because although the real-life phenomenon of sleep paralysis is legitimately terrifying, the film struggles to reach any further than the simple idea of waking up and not being able to move.
The narrative hamstrings itself because there’s really only so much you can do with a character that can’t move. The opening scene starts with Jocelin Donahue waking up with sleep paralysis, and while she’s unable to move a demon crawls into her room. Helpless and terrified, the only thing she can do is watch. While the scene is rather effective, especially for opening up a horror film, it’s the only trick it has. It quickly becomes redundant when every single encounter with the demon is met with wide-eyes and a character that can’t move. You can only do so much with that and it doesn’t take long for Dead Awake to feel redundant.
What’s also problematic is that it gives little to no room for its villain to do anything even remotely interesting—where’s the fun in preying on a victim that can’t move? It sucks the personality out of the monster (and subsequently the movie) and quickly becomes a paint-by-numbers horror film that’s forgettable and, unfortunately, very ordinary. And because there’s only so much you can do with it, Dead Awake desperately tries to stretch its sleep paralysis scheme as far as it possibly can. By doing so, the film only gets sillier the longer it goes on.
It’s confidently made and there are a couple cool moments that general audiences will probably eat up; but as far as its story and monster goes, it leaves a lot to be desired. Not even Jocelin Donahue, who is legitimately great here (when isn’t she?) can turn this one around. Despite how good of a concept it may be, if Dead Awake tells us anything, it’s that maybe we should put sleep paralysis to rest.