Before I Wake: a few thoughts on a horror film worth seeking out

Jacob Tremblay as Cody in Before I Wake.
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The Jacob Tremblay and Kate Bosworth-starring horror Before I Wake is available to watch of Netflix – here’s why you should seek it out.

This article contains spoilers for Before I Wake…

I have many nights where sleep eludes me, and in 2019 it was no different when I stumbled upon the film Before I Wake. Seeking to kill time, Netflix recommended one of their original films from 2016 based on my previous viewing history. A sucker for a good horror film, I decided to give it a try.

Four viewings later and I’m still glad I selected to watch it.


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The film primarily follows eight-year-old Cody, played by Jacob Tremblay. After a few unfortunate events in his short life, beginning with the loss of his mother as a toddler, he is placed in the foster care of Jessie and Mark Hobson (Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane). The Hobson’s are still grieving the death of their son, Sean, but now feel stable enough to open their home to a child in need. A seemingly perfect fit.

As many horror films do, we’re introduced to the characters in a seemingly picturesque manner. In this case, a newly formed family created by three people in need of love and stability. A beautiful home, not too close to any neighbours. An adorable young boy full of hope and a love of butterflies. The Hobson’s finally accepting that life can move on without their lost child.

And yet, by the very genre of film we know that this won’t last.

The overall premise is that Cody has a very unique ability; anything he dreams is projected as real whenever he sleeps. His love of butterflies causes an occasionally bewitching display of colour and calm, and this unusual ability at first seems beautiful, a ‘gift’. Until you remember two things; one is that nightmares are also a very real possibility, and the other is that earlier in the film Cody reveals that he doesn’t like to sleep because he fears The Canker Man who eats people. “He ate my Mom.”

We are given glimpses at the existence of The Canker Man early on, though details and appearances are fleeting. But in time, the terrifying grey being becomes not only a significant element of Cody’s imagination, but also one able to take a life.

Putting aside the potential monster and risk of nightmares for a moment, the film also raises other questions. Predominantly, when Jessie Hobson uses Cody’s gift to conjure up her late son, are her actions understandable or – as husband Mark suggests – potentially abusive? Naturally, a grieving person would do anything they could to see their loved one again, but should that occur through the manipulation of another vulnerable person?

It also raises another issue about how the couple have coped with Sean’s death by potentially trying to ‘replace’ him. Taking Cody in as a foster son, he appears to be about the same age and a generally similar appearance to their biological son. And when Cody and Mark discuss how Sean passed away through a tragic drowning, he also explains they then discovered they were unable to have more children. An issue that doesn’t seem to have been relevant to them prior to the death of Sean.

Obviously grief can distort many viewpoints, and there’s no singular way to mourn or find ways to move on, but there appears to be an uncomfortable undertone, primarily with Jessie, that Cody is merely a way to have a child without having their child. And yet, there is no doubt that they love Cody, too.

Returning to the plot, we see the lines between Jessie’s actions and Cody’s imagination come together in a terrifying way.

The Canker Man has already made himself known to the viewer, even devouring one of Cody’s schoolmates –witnessed by only one other young student. The trauma pushes Cody to return to an old habit of secretly using stimulants to avoid sleep, and keep everyone safe. However, Jessie’s desire to see her son again forces her to sneak sleeping medication into his glass of milk. That night, the visions of Sean are not so heart-warming and The Canker Man makes himself known to the couple. In a panic Mark races to wake Cody, unaware of Jessie’s interference.

The Canker Man invades Cody’s room and envelops Mark.

At this point, I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers, but I highly recommend you view the film. It is a favourite of mine, and has stuck in my mind ever since I first stumbled upon it.

As horror films go, I would say this is a fluctuating view; the scares are not constant and all-consuming, yet the threat is always there. It’s always interesting to have a child at the heart of a horror, as the idea of a youngster being exposed to any trauma, real or imagined, is always a devastating concept.

Children are characterised by their innocence, and having them in situations that would break an adult is difficult to consider. Whereas many films within the genre would start off lighter and then descend rapidly, and almost entirely, into darkness, Before I Wake takes a different approach by interjecting the beauty and unique nature of Cody’s gift.

Rather than merely explaining how a young mind processes information, Before I Wake allows the viewer to see it in action. For me, the biggest impact of this film is in discovering just who The Canker Man truly is. The monster is somehow the most devastating aspect, and allows the film to end in a calm way that truly gives hope for the future of Cody, as opposed to the traditional horror trope of ‘these are the characters that survived the ordeal’.

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