“Waking Nightmare” is strange, surreal, and a bit mental — and that’s both its charm and its curse; a flawed but intriguing jumble.
With an uninspired title and a deceptively simple plot synopsis, Waking Nightmare disarms viewers into thinking they know what to expect — a run-of-the-mill low-budget horror film that feels derivative of almost everything else that gets quietly released to VOD before quickly ending up on Tubi.
Within the film’s first minute, it becomes apparent that may not exactly be the case.
The synopsis I was provided with (there’s no official synopsis on IMDb) reads as follows:
Jordan suffered manic episodes after the loss of her friend. Her mother has a family doctor prescribe her Ambien to help with her sleepwalking. As time goes on, Jordan has issues remembering what happened.
It doesn’t exactly inspire enthusiasm. But the premise of a sleepwalking protagonist was intriguing enough to draw me in, especially given the impressive cast that includes some familiar fresh faces and a couple of 80’s film and genre icons.
Waking Nightmare begins with an unnerving intro that effectively puts you in the headspace of someone struggling to quiet their mind and escape from the relentless assault of horrifying memories, pain, and panic.
A young woman, Jordan (Shelley Regner, Pitch Perfect), wakes up from an intense, full-body nightmare involving excessive flailing and screaming.
Her parents, Danielle (Diane Franklin, Amityville II: The Possession) and Jeff (Jamison Newlander, The Lost Boys), attempt to comfort her. Clearly, this isn’t the first time she’s had a traumatic nightmare that wakes the entire house, and she struggles with the shame of feeling like a burden.
We’re immediately thrust into a surreal, visually disorienting title sequence. This punk rock aesthetic and underground horror influence make it apparent we’re in for something a bit off the beaten path.
This off-kilter, somewhat manic vibe permeates the entirety of the film, which never commits to a single style or tone.
Is it a dramatic thriller about trauma and mental illness? Is it a campy, intentionally over-the-top slasher? Is it a winking comedic satire? Or is it a tonally askew mashup that’s all over the place? It’s all of these.
The first part of the film feels very much like a straightforward, rather humdrum drama centered on Jordan, a young woman who is not ok — though she very much wants everyone around her to think she is, wishing they’d stop fussing over her and asking her how she’s doing.
Jordan cries in the shower and experiences routine nightmares and flashes of past trauma. The nature of her trauma is revealed little by little but never in much depth.
Having recently dropped out of Harvard following a tragedy, she’s returned home to get her head on straight. She attempts to lay low and fly under the radar. But her old friend Zoey (Every Heart, Return to Me) learns she’s back in town and forces Jordan to get out and reconnect with people from her past.
Jordan’s physician (played by horror icon David Naughton, An American Werewolf in London) prescribes Ambien to help her sleep and recommends she see a shrink, advice she refuses.
We soon learn Jordan’s mom, Danielle, is wound a little tight, likely due to worrying about her daughter, and their relationship is somewhat fraught. Her dad, Jeff, is a little more laissez-faire (the quintessential “cool” dad). He doesn’t hold back much when it comes to badmouthing Danielle in front of Jordan.
But it seems Danielle is right to be on edge, as Jordan’s stress and trauma manifest in increasingly disturbing ways.
Besides the nightmares and sleepwalking, she’s having repeated visions of her deceased roommate, Jamie, who committed suicide. And she’s wracked with guilt and unable to move on.
Some odd but interesting editing choices keep everything a bit off-kilter while keeping the viewer locked into the unsettled mindset of the slowly unraveling Jordan.
Then, at about the 20-minute mark, the film changes gear and takes a darker turn.
A sleepwalking Jordan wanders out into the road late at night. She is picked up by a despicable drunk man who puts her in the back seat of his car and tries to take advantage of her. But the unconscious Jordan repeatedly and brutally stabs him to death.
She makes her way home, takes a bath to wash off the blood, and screams and cries in the tub. She seems to “wake” at some point, aware something awful has happened, but not sure what.
At this point, you think you know what kind of film Waking Nightmare will be for the remainder of its runtime. Trust me; you don’t.
In a nod to an obvious classic horror inspiration, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari appears on the television screen in Jordan’s bedroom as her inner dialogue reveals her fear of waking up evil (“What if I woke up as the bad guy?”).
The next day, a detective arrives looking for information on the murder, and everyone’s acting a bit odd. A police interrogation (of a couple of neighborhood boys Jordan has been hanging out with) is so ridiculous that it feels intentionally campy. It’s a strange comedic turn that feels misplaced, given the tone of the film up to this point.
We take a brief dip back into melodrama before diving into the deep end of weirdness.
Jordan watches deranged clips on the television, and we’re led to believe what she sees reflects the chaos in her brain and not what’s on the screen.
A confrontation with her mom over Jordan’s bloody shirt found in the laundry basket is unhinged. And it seems Jordan’s parents may not exactly be beacons of sanity either. Perhaps Jordan is dealing with a genetic predisposition to mental illness.
But this is played more for eccentric oddity than dramatic tension.
By the time the film hits the 45-minute mark, it’s leaning fully into its aspirations as a bizarre and unorthodox cult film.
We’re treated to a demented and deranged scene involving a psychotic Yan Birch (The People Under the Stairs) that I promise you’ll be thinking about long after the credits roll. It’s one of those “worth the price of admission” scenes, even if it feels like it belongs in another movie.
In the final 20 minutes of the film, we get a nutty reveal that I didn’t hate. But it happens so late in the film we feel cheated out of what could have been a lot of fun if it had been more fully explored.
It’s a twist that makes you wish Waking Nightmare would have leaned far more into a gleeful John Waters-esque camp.
Franklin is allowed to flourish in the final moments of the film, and I dearly wish this would have been the beginning of the film rather than the end.
And just when I’m cursing the filmmakers for giving me less than a minute of Naughton screen time, he reappears ever-so-briefly — but is still given nothing of substance to do, which feels criminal. There’s absolutely no reason for his presence, other than to bait horror fans with a big name. Did I enjoy seeing him? Absolutely. But his minuscule moments onscreen could have easily been cut without affecting the film in the slightest.
This is a slight film that clocks in at just over an hour.
On the one hand, that makes it a breeze to watch, demanding very little of your time or a deeply engaged brain. On the other hand, it feels underdeveloped and woefully undercooked. As previously mentioned, it ends right as it feels like it’s hitting its stride.
In a time when many films feel overly padded and indulgent, begging for a tighter pass in the editing room, it’s strange to call out a film for being too short. But this is one of those rare cases when it would have certainly benefited from more character development and more time spent reveling in the good stuff.
It, perhaps, could have worked much better as a short film.
Much of what we crave in a feature is omitted. And what is included generally adds very little to the plot development or overall enjoyment of the film. For example, scenes with Jordan and her friends are unsatisfying and purposeless. Despite the obvious acting talent, no one brings much to the table here (through no fault of their own), and these scenes don’t even help to develop our lead more fully or endear us more to her plight. Rather, these scenes slow down the momentum the film tries to build.
I applaud the film for its originality and fearless embrace of cult filmmaking.
It probably would have been better served if directors Steve Craig and Brian Farmer (who wrote the screenplay) gave in entirely to its weird tendencies and went bigger and more over-the-top with everything. Though I do think it’s intended to feel like a fever dream, and, in that respect, it mostly succeeds at capturing the essence of how it feels to float in a disorienting dreamlike state where the lines of reality and imagination blur.
There were scenes when I asked myself, “What the hell am I watching?“ But those moments are truly where Waking Nightmare is at its most entertaining and memorable.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have enough of those satisfying moments to make it wholly entertaining.
I’m reluctant to tell you to aggressively avoid this, though I’d venture most horror fans expecting it to deliver on the promise of its cool poster and well-cut trailer will be disappointed. The acting talent is mostly wasted, the tone is too inconsistent, the pacing is problematic, and its low budget is not well obfuscated. The scares are also non-existent. One kill scene early on is promising, and it would have been fun to have more of that. But even blood is mostly absent from the film.
So why is this not a hard pass for me?
When I started watching, I thought, “Well, this isn’t going to be good,” and I was immediately prepared to be disappointed. But the weirder it got, the more intrigued I became — if not more than a little baffled by some of the choices. That makes this a bit difficult to assess. There’s some oddball charm here that resonates with me, and I do legitimately appreciate the effort and creativity. I think there’s a rather cool movie buried somewhere in here, and I’m anxious to see what Craig and Farmer do next.
Terror Films is a risk-taking genre distribution company with an affinity for films off the beaten path, and I appreciate that. From home runs and must-see indie horror hits like Hell House LLC and The Taking of Deborah Logan to cult films like Don’t Fuck in the Woods and The Barn to more forgettable fare and questionable outings, they may not always knock it out of the park… but they’re always swinging for the fences. That’s why I continue to follow their work and champion their new releases.
Even a miss that tries to give horror fans something different deserves a little love in my book.
Waking Nightmare is not the kind of film critics rave about. Nor is it a film I’d expect mainstream audiences to flock to. Ultimately, anyone who likes their horror refined and narratively satisfying will want to sleep on Waking Nightmare.
But if you’re looking for something different than the same old tired thing and like your horror films a bit weird, inexplicable, and undeniably indie, this might just be kooky enough to warrant a brief watch.