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Why Before I Wake Is Mike Flanagan's Most Underrated Movie

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Mike Flanagan's 2016 horror movie Before I Wake sits at a Rotten Tomatoes score of 63%. It's a respectable score, but considerably lower than the rest of Flanagan's movies. Because of that, Before I Wake is often looked down upon, but it's actually an underrated gem within the director's catalog of films.

The movie centers around intertwining themes of grief. After the sudden loss of their son, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Thomas Jane) decide to foster Cody (Jacob Tremblay). After getting settled in their home, Cody tells Jessie about the monster that stalks him at night — the Canker Man. Other strange events begin to plague the Hobsons' home, such as the appearance of electric blue butterflies and the reappearance of their deceased son. Jessie and Mark realize that Cody is the cause of everything from the Canker Man to visions of their son.

Before I Wake is a quieter film, which is where much of its criticism comes from. Some complaints about the horror movie said that it was too slow and its featured monster wasn't scary enough, but all of that is missing the point. Before I Wake is an exploration of grief and healing wrapped up in the clothes of a horror movie. Because of the misplaced critiques, Before I Wake is an underrated horror movie that didn't get its due, possibly due to it being released at the wrong time in Flanagan's career. Though 2016 wasn't long ago, Flanagan has seen a major shift toward mainstream appeal with his projects in recent years.


Flanagan has a tendency to create works about coming to terms with grief and trauma. 2013's Oculus centered on a pair of siblings struggling to come to terms with their parents' violent deaths. 2016's Hush focused on a woman dealing with traumatic side effects of her loss of hearing and ability to speak. Before I Wake also features traumatic grief, specifically focused around the sudden loss of a loved one. But the difference between the movies is their villains. Hush and Oculus featured more straight-forward and traditionally scary villains. With Hush, it was an intruder. Oculus featured a haunted mirror. These villains present more blunt and obvious threats. Before I Wake takes its time to unveil the dangers of its monster. In that regard, the monster feels less urgent.

Before I Wake's monster is a direct metaphor for cancer. Jessie eventually learns that Cody's birth mother died of cancer when he was younger. "Canker" was his misunderstanding of the word cancer. He thought the "canker" ate his mom, due to how different she looked after chemotherapy treatments. By using the Canker Man as the movie's central villain, Flanagan makes a statement on the fear and trauma around sudden death. Grief is a scary and prolonged process; Before I Wake beautifully showcases Jessie and Cody's journeys through their individual grief, and explores how they find comfort in one another.

With the release of The Haunting series on Netflix, Flanagan became known for his unique brand of emotionally-infused horror. Both The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor were deeply allegorical works of horror that outlined the grieving process. Looking back at Before I Wake shows that it aligns perfectly with the themes laid out in The Haunting series. Those shows were massive successes for Flanagan, with Hill House in particular propelling the director to his current level of acclaim. If Before I Wake was released after that series, it likely would've gone over better with critics and horror movie audiences. Hopefully the success of those shows will encourage more fans to give this underrated Flanagan movie another try.

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