Grimmfest 2012 Review: WAKE UP AND DIE is GROUNDHOG DAY ... With Murder!
Then with no explanation we suddenly rewind back to the start, only Montenegro plainly remembers what just happened. Something about her terrified confusion sets Bohorquez off, and he coldly despatches her a second time. Lights out - then rewind yet again. And again, and again, with our heroine desperately trying to work out what the hell is going on, and what she can possibly do to break the loop. Not merely what she might have to do to her captor, but what she might have to change about herself in order to take the initiative rather than end up dead on the floor.
It's a fantastic premise, enough to keep you watching despite the film's frequent shortcomings. Wake Up and Die wants to be at least a little more cerebral than the title might suggest, and to some extent it succeeds; it's a surprisingly restrained film, given it's essentially about the main character meeting a violent death over and over again. While the main plot unfolds like something of a mystery or procedural, a lot of the wisdom Montenegro takes from one reincarnation to the next is about precisely what she ought to say, and how she ought to say it, rather than simply having learnt that key A opens door B.
At the same time Urrutia tries to make sure that central mystery gets resolved, and he arguably tries a little too hard, with several key plot points that come across a little too much like a Scary Movie-level parody of genre tropes rather than effective shocks. Some of the splatter hits home, whether it's the underlying horror of what you're seeing or the sheer surreal daring behind it all, but for every gory moment that elicits a chill there's another line about the sublime joy of taking a human life or the futility of resistance that doesn't feel as if deserves more than a yawn.
The director and his crew struggle to establish a tone, as well. Wake Up and Die displays a little too much stereotypically Latin exuberance, from the clanging, atonal score, to the wild mood swings when Bohorquez turns violent, to the way the script descends to tired pop-psychological clichés devoid of subtlety in its eagerness to wrap everything up nice and tidy. None of this derails the film, but it's not unlike having a hyperactive teenager doing an overly theatrical reading of his favourite serial killer novels while you're tied to a chair in an empty room - the story is basically sound, but he could really have paid more attention to the presentation.
Urrutia proves a solid presence behind the camera, though he never orchestrates anything particularly flashy beyond the stuttering rewinds and the odd drifting overhead shot as the couple repeatedly wake up. Most of the action is confined to the same few rooms, and the camera navigates these restricted spaces fairly nimbly, but the lack of any overt visual trickery does feel like something of a letdown. There's none of the showmanship of the Wachowski siblings' Bound, say, even though that film covered roughly the same ground - a handful of tight interiors and one or two outdoor shots to bookend things.
Still, that plot hook never stops working its magic - not so much the promise of an explanation, but the ways this ghastly experience forces the heroine to change even while she's still stuck in the middle of the whole ordeal. It's more than simply "Suck it up and grow a pair"; Montenegro's increasing confidence and willingness to take risks begins to touch on the relationship between the sexes and the gender divide in general. She decides to take charge even if it won't magically sort things out, to look this guy in the eye and call him on his bullshit regardless of what it might cost her.
Wake Up and Die is surprisingly mature at times, too, for a film where the two leads spend most of the running time naked and sex drives most of the plot. This is a woman being murdered repeatedly, remember, and Bohorquez is clearly Montenegro's physical superior, but Urrutia never takes the easy, exploitative route. Even the nastier moments, in particular one late reveal, are pitched more bizarrely over the top than out-and-out offensive. This willingness to hold back does make the conclusion seem all the more hasty and reductive, but it's a welcome touch of class all the same.
Urrutia's film feels more like an episode of some trashy late-night Twilight Zone knockoff than a piece of great cinema, but there is still enough craft, invention and level-headed thought here to make it worth watching. The idea is a good one, and the ambition laudable, even if the director can't quite deliver with the execution. If you like smart, subtle horror and you don't mind a few (just a few) grinding power chords, awkward monologues or dumb jump scares shoehorned in where they don't really belong, track down Wake Up and Die pronto.
This review of Wake Up and Die comes from its screening at Grimmfest 2012, which ran from 3-7 October at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester, in the UK.