With absolutely nothing new to offer, Dead Awake is content to coast on a flimsy premise involving a scary-sounding medical condition turned malevolently paranormal.
Sleep paralysis is fertile ground for horror: sufferers reportedly awake unable to move, their minds conscious but their bodies still frozen in place with sleep. Some people even report the feeling of an evil presence or some otherworldly entity pressing down on their chests, and as a result, sleep paralysis often explains various accounts of demons or alien abduction. B-movie Dead Awake mines an inherently terrifying phenomenon for some easy scares, but its dimensionless characters simply fall prey to “whatever you do, don’t fall asleep” tropes that have been a staple of horror since Freddy first stalked Nancy’s dreams on Elm Street.
Despite its sensational premise, Dead Awake opens with woeful melodrama, touching upon a soured relationship between identical twin sisters, Kate and Beth (Jocelin Donahue), the latter of whom has been experiencing sleep paralysis. Despite their damaged rapport, they maintain enough of a freaky twin bond to allow Kate to paranormally see through Beth’s eyes one night as the ghoul that torments her sleep—or more accurately, in the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness—strangles Beth to death. The coroner’s report lists an asthma attack as the cause of death, but how can that be when Beth’s discredited doctor, Hassan Davies (Jesse Borrego) reports that—wait for it—“Beth didn’t have asthma.”?
That’s about the extent of the imagination in this by-the-numbers horror flick, a film content to shamelessly indulge in genre tropes and heavy-handed exposition while fully eschewing any form of meaningful character development. When Hassan breathily announces that he believes sleep paralysis has claimed the lives of dozens of otherwise healthy people, one piece of supporting evidence he cites is that it used to be called “Old Hag Syndrome.” The medical-speak doesn’t get much more sophisticated from there, even as skeptic Dr. Sykes (Lori Petty, joylessly cashing a paycheck) arrives on the scene to dispel Hassan’s quackery.
Hassan is right, of course, and soon he and Kate are teaming up with the late Beth’s boyfriend, Evan (Jesse Bradford), to find a way to beat the sleep monster, whose choke-out kill count keeps rising. They concoct strategies to stay awake and ultimately to banish it from the dream world, and if this is starting to sound an awful lot like A Nightmare on Elm Street, that’s because it’s a much less stylish, un-scary version of exactly that. At one point, Kate even takes a bath, and as she’s nodding off in the tub, it’s such a spot-on recreation of Elm Street that it’s a surprise when no Krueger-esque claw rises out of the bathwater. Instead, the creepiest thing the hag can do is make black ooze drip from various things. When it appears in the dream states, it crawls like an untelevised version of Samara from The Ring.
With absolutely nothing new to offer, Dead Awake is content to coast on a flimsy premise involving a scary-sounding medical condition turned malevolently paranormal. Hindered by wooden acting and weak special effects—the abysmal CGI shot of a spider descending onto the frozen eyeball of a paralyzed sleeper is especially laughable—it’s the kind of flick that, like most dreams, will fade from memory almost immediately after it ends.