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Waking Karma

A film that takes chilling inspiration from real-world horror, “Waking Karma” is more compelling on paper than what ends up on the screen.

I’ll give it one thing, Waking Karma knows how to make a great first impression.

Rarely am I so intrigued during a film’s opening credits. Disturbing footage of a creepy cult, a ritualistic murder, and news clippings play out against the backdrop of a folksy and beautiful but haunting tune about a holy vessel. Everything works here, from the song choice to the striking visuals and effective editing.

It’s a prelude to so much promise that the film, unfortunately, can’t quite deliver on.

After the title screen, we jump ahead seventeen years where, coincidentally, a young woman named Karma (Hannah Christine Shetler) is turning seventeen. She’s just been accepted to Harvard, but she’s reluctant to tell her mom, Sunny (Kimberly Alexander), for fear of what the thought of losing her only daughter might do to her.

We quickly discover that mom and daughter share a close bond, and Sunny firmly believes in tradition and ritual. She’s got that “but I’m a fun mom” energy that’s always more than a little suspect. But it’s played off as a reflection of her desperation to keep her maturing daughter close and protect her from the world’s evils.

We also discover there’s a good reason Sunny isn’t very trusting of that big, bad world.

Karma’s dad wasn’t a very nice man. Sunny escaped his clutches with her daughter, but she lives in constant fear that he’ll come back for her one day.

Though it’s not explicitly stated for a while, it’s not hard to piece together that Karma’s father is the leader of the cult from the opening credits, now a wanted fugitive on the run who could use the help of to keep from getting caught while on the lamb. As for Sunny, she was a former mistreated cult member.

Then the inevitable happens.

An unstamped letter gets slipped under her door. He’s found them, and he intends to reclaim his daughter.

In a panic, Sunny tells Karma they must leave immediately. She’s too scared to call the cops, and she refuses to tell Karma any details about what happened to her or why she’s so shaken. But she knows a safe space where they can hide at a friend’s remote farm.

When they arrive at the home of an older couple, Butch (Bradley Fisher) and Priscilla (Christine Sloane), the red flags keep mounting.

It’s essentially a compound. Butch guards the entrance to his property with a shotgun. He doesn’t believe in cell phones or wi-fi and prefers to remain as far off the grid as possible. His wife refuses to speak as a result of past trauma, and she doesn’t seem particularly happy to see Sunny.

A lot of fuss is made early on about Karma’s veganism, which, unsurprisingly, becomes a key plot point.

Nothing feels remotely right, and Karma struggles to figure out whom she can trust.

Of course, it’s not long after Karma and Sunny arrive at their “safe haven” that Karma’s sadistic daddy, Paul, shows up with his thuggish enforcer, Wendall (Christopher Showerman).

Paul is undoubtedly a highlight of the film, as he’s played by legendary actor Michael Madsen (Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs).

His appearance immediately injects a much-needed bit of compelling gravitas, and he’s almost worth the price of admission — except that he’s not really given a script worthy of his talents.

He spends some time terrorizing his daughter before she’s forced to face the ultimate portrayal.

What happens next is delivered as a big reveal, but I doubt most would find it particularly surprising. It also introduces a big hit to the film’s plausibility. I don’t want to spoil it out of respect for the filmmakers. But I will say that it hampered my enjoyment of the film and made Waking Karma feel much more like a Lifetime drama than a horror film.

In fact, this is one of those films where the horror is far more implicit than explicit.

The ideas are terrifying — the oppressive nature of religion, the dangers of unfettered faith and unchecked power, extreme misogyny, and child abuse.

But nothing that happens onscreen save for one fairly disturbing scene rises to the level of being frightening or even horrifying.

As I mentioned before, it’s much more of a drama with dark subject matter.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except it’s not really marketed that way. And expecting something different could definitely cloud your enjoyment.

There’s a lot of effort made to build up some creeping tension, but it’s never unclear where things are headed. There are twists and turns and scenes that are meant to shock. However, everything that unfolds is telegraphed pretty clearly for anyone familiar with the tropes of the genre.

Writer Liz Fania Werner and co-director Carlos Montaner had admirable intentions. When I read about their inspiration from the press materials, I was very enthusiastic about this film. I love subject matter that deals with cults and the idea of religious repression and persecution.

Werner had this to say about her inspiration:

“I was inspired to write Waking Karma after a family member joined a religious sect whose practice centers around regressive views on gender roles and sexuality. When we read that there are around 3,000 cults in the United States with a membership estimated at 300,000 to three million, we were both immediately hooked into using this film as a vehicle to explore our fears of losing our autonomy as human beings, whether to a larger religious institution or to those who supposedly love us the most.”

That’s compelling stuff.

The execution just doesn’t live up to those exciting ideas. And it pains me to say that because I really wanted to love this film. It’s not terrible by any means. There’s some interesting material here, and Madsen is a joy to watch. I’m also always on board for female-driven projects with strong female leads.

Where the film suffers is not going far enough when you really want it to when it comes to the horror, spending lots of time on relationship drama that is never compelling or believable enough to carry the film, and delivering predictable plot points that never have the impact that’s intended.

XYZ Films released Waking Karma to VOD and Digital platforms on January 26th.
Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3

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