A little context before we start: Before I Wake was shot in the fall of 2013 (under the name Somnia, but that's nor here nor there), and was finished by the beginning of 2015, and only a series of corporate bankruptcies have kept it from us till now. That means that when wee little Jacob Tremblay did his work here, he hadn't yet been cast in his breakthrough Room, to say nothing of The Book of Henry and Wonder (and of course, we should always, at all times, strive to say nothing of The Book of Henry). It was director-writer-editor Mike Flanagan's fourth feature-length project, when he was known, if at all, for the 2011 direct-to-video horror film Absentia, which had been seen by very few people, though they tended to adore it. No-one could plausibly have imagined his future as the director of the way-better-than-it-could-have-been Ouija: Origin of Evil, or Netflix's favorite horror guy, and thence one of America's most beloved makers of psychologically-oriented ghost stories (hell, even Oculus had only, at that point, been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival).

This is worth bringing up for a couple of reasons. The cheap one is that it explains why Before I Wake already feels like such a time capsule in a couple of small but really distracting ways: the scene where Thomas Jane interrupts the movie with an advertisement for the Xbox 360 and its beloved, long-lived peripheral, Kinect, is a notably sad moment. The less cheap one is that, if we thing of this as Somnia, third in the "Latin Nouns" trilogy of Absentia and Oculus, it fits in perfectly with the techniques and themes Flanagan and sometime co-writer Jeff Howard had been developing all throughout, and this is a substantially more rewarding way to approach it than expecting another horror movie from a fan-favorite indie horror icon.

Thing is, Before I Wake isn't much of a horror movie, not withstanding the trailers that hopefully attached themselves to every new horror release for about two straight years before the film finally landed at Netflix. It is a movie that utilises horror to do other things. The film is much more a domestic drama about overcoming traumatic memories, which for Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Jane) are very traumatic indeed: a few years back, their eight-year-old son Sean (Antonio Romero) drowned in the bathtub. While Jessie attends a therapy group, Mark simply sits and stews in his grief. Naturally, they make great candidates for adopting a sweet little boy with a troubled past: Cody (Tremblay), just about exactly the age that Sean was when he died. One might perhaps suppose that this whole situation would raise at least a mildly red flag, but the more we hear caseworker Natalie (Annabeth Gish) talk, the more it becomes clear that whatever has caused Cody to shuttle from one foster family to the next has left her happy to take "good enough" candidates for parenthood.

The mystery resolves itself pretty fast, though we who are film watchers figure it out a bit quicker than the characters do (in point of fact, I'm not quite clear when the characters do figure it out; at a certain point, it just seems like they already know): when Cody sleeps, his dreams manifest as tangible physical objects in the house where he's sleeping. Initially, this is wholly benign, with butterflies flitting around the Hobsons' living. Later, it seems miraculous: the night after Cody sees a photo of Sean for the first time, the boy appears to come back from the dead, a beaming smile on his face. And even here, the film starts to tread into something much creepier than pure fantasy: though neither Jessie nor Mark seems to care, Sean's face is like an inflexible mask, trapped in an emotionless, eternal grin - because that's the only expression Cody has ever seen him with. Of course, it becomes creepier still as it goes along, because Cody is a little kid with a horrible past, and little kids have nightmares...

So okay, Before I Wake is totally a horror movie. It just shouldn't be, perhaps. The most explicitly horrifying moments, as Cody's manifested dreams start to involve a hungry, shadow form called the Canker Man (Topher Bousquet), are also the most generic and dull, however effectively Flanagan and crew stage the being's appearances. And this goes as well for the direction the plot starts to take, as Jessie goes through the typical horror movie beats of scrounging up medical files and interviewing people who know fragments of a terrible tale of woe and suffering, and learning just what exactly the ghost represents. I absolutely admire the impulse, present in Oculus as well, to use the stuff of a horror movie as a metaphor for the way that bad memories can become devouring monsters. It's just that Before I Wake is only okay as a horror movie, with imagery that's a bit too familiar to be in any real way scary, and with a plot that it's extraordinarily easy to get in front of.

That being said, it's a slightly wonderful character drama. If the genre blending comes at a bit of an expense to the genre, it's an excellent opportunity to depict Jessie, Mark, and Cody's various psychological hurts in a more interesting way than strict realism could manage. And this is why the film's limitations as horror don't harm it too much: the only thing the horror elements are there for is to provide a recognisable framework for Flanagan and Howard to funnel in their ideas about how people work. It's still not perfect: Bosworth and Jane aren't nearly strong enough performers to pull of their characters' inner turmoil, so the movie is compelled to operate in a largely shallow register. Still, the animating ideas of the project are sound, and Flanagan's handling of the material creates a good mixture of magical realism and slow-developing mystery. It's a solid movie all around, if never quite up to the level of Absentia or Oculus. I pity it: it's not good enough to proclaim it a lost treasure, and even less is it bad enough to have earned the aura of something that couldn't get theatrically released on five separate tries. But if we think of it as a horror-adjacent character drama that came out in the first week of January? It starts to look like a best-case scenario, in that light.