Mike Flanagan’s Obscure Dark Fantasy: Preceding ‘The Haunting of Hill House’


Mike Flanagan has risen to become a prominent figure in the realm of horror, particularly through his prolific output under an exclusive agreement with Netflix. His creations like “The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” “Midnight Mass,” and the recent release “The Fall of the House of Usher” showcase his mastery of the genre. Notably, films like “Hush” and “Gerald’s Game” demonstrate his adeptness in crafting chilling experiences, with the latter being an especially noteworthy adaptation of a supposedly unadaptable Stephen King novel.

Yet, one of Flanagan’s works managed to slip under the radar, even following his breakthrough success with “Hush.” “Before I Wake” was initially intended for a theatrical release but ended up stuck in development limbo for an extended period. This film, while more fantastical than some of Flanagan’s other works, lays the foundation for his future endeavors. If you enjoyed “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Before I Wake” is sure to captivate you.

The journey of “Before I Wake” began in the spring of 2015, with the release of its first trailer, anticipating a theatrical debut later that year. However, that anticipated release came and went without a trace, leaving audiences in suspense. Over a year later, a new trailer emerged, promising a release in September 2016. Once again, the film’s release date passed with no sign of distribution. It appeared as though the project might never see the light of day. This delay was attributed to the financial struggles of the film’s studio, Relativity, which filed for bankruptcy just as the marketing campaign was underway. Flanagan revealed that they noticed a lack of promotional materials and received evasive responses from Relativity. By the time they learned of the studio’s predicament, all they could do was hope for a resolution. Eventually, the film received an international release, but its U.S. audience had to wait a bit longer before it found its way to Netflix in 2018. Despite its availability on the streaming platform, “Before I Wake” remained relatively overlooked compared to Flanagan’s other acclaimed works. Nevertheless, it remains a gem worthy of viewing even years later.


It would have been a great loss if this film had remained indefinitely shelved, as it boasts some of the most compelling performances, particularly from the remarkably young Jacob Tremblay. Tremblay, now a recognized talent, not only starred in films like “Room” and “Wonder” but also collaborated with Mike Flanagan in “Doctor Sleep,” where he portrayed a young baseball player subjected to a brutal fate at the hands of the True Knot, a scene that stands as one of Flanagan’s most haunting moments on screen. Despite his youth, Tremblay delivers every scene with genuine conviction, from Cody’s initial timidity in his new family to his escalating terror induced by the haunting figure known as the Canker Man, a specter that haunts his dreams.

The portrayals of the two parents, portrayed by Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane, are equally remarkable. They depict a grieving couple striving to navigate their way forward with exceptional depth. Much of their emotional journey is conveyed not through explicit dialogue, but rather through their actions. It is evident that both are at different stages in their grieving process. Jessie, in particular, clings to the memory of their departed son, as evidenced by her request to leave one family portrait on the wall, contrary to their agreement to remove all pictures of Sean. This attachment becomes even more apparent when she attempts to use Cody’s dreams as a means of spending time with her son, presenting him with photographs and home videos to help create a more perfect illusion of Sean in his dreams. The film also features several familiar faces in Flanagan’s repertoire, including Annabeth Gish, known from “The Haunting of Hill House” and “Midnight Mass,” and Courtney Bell, who appeared in Flanagan’s debut film, “Absentia,” as well as “Oculus.” Flanagan himself even makes a brief cameo in one of the final scenes of the movie.

While “Before I Wake” predates “The Haunting of Hill House” by three years, both productions premiered on Netflix in the same year. Unfortunately, “Before I Wake” received comparatively little attention. However, thematically, the two share a common thread of exploring the complexities of grief. “The Haunting of Hill House” received widespread acclaim for its nuanced portrayal of grief across the Crain siblings, making it a standout piece of work.

In “Before I Wake,” Jessie and Mark grapple with the tragic loss of their son, Sean, who drowned in their bathtub. They carry a profound sense of guilt, feeling responsible for the tragedy. When they introduce Cody into their lives, they unexpectedly find a new connection to Sean through the boy’s extraordinary ability to bring dreams to life. Jessie endeavors to sustain this link by providing Cody with memories through photos and videos, enabling him to dream of Sean in a more authentic manner. She even resorts to drugging him once, all in pursuit of granting him peaceful slumber. However, Sean’s dream manifestations are never flawless, echoing a poignant line from the early episodes of “Hill House”: “It’s better than never seeing him again.” The parents aren’t the only ones grappling with grief; Cody, orphaned at a tender age, holds a crucial key to unraveling the mysteries of his haunting nightmares.

“Before I Wake” is Flanagan’s unique interpretation of a fairy tale, yet it retains the same raw intensity as his more mature works. The performances across the board are exceptional, and the narrative seamlessly fits into Flanagan’s broader portfolio of films and series. This film reaffirms that Flanagan possesses an innate storytelling magic. Dive into this cinematic experience; it slots perfectly into any Halloween binge you have planned for the month, offering a satisfying 90-minute viewing. Any fan of Flanagan (or horror aficionado) is in for a treat if they haven’t experienced this gem yet.

“Before I Wake” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.