Waking Karma (2022) Review
Waking Karma opens with footage of a cult committing a ritual murder as the credits roll. Intercut with this are shots of newspapers with bold headlines about the cult’s death toll and its leader Paul escaping capture.
Seventeen years later, it’s Karma’s (Hannah Christine Shetler, Glowlexa, Sonder) birthday, her seventeenth birthday coincidentally enough. This leads to a discussion with her mother, Sunny (Kimberly Alexander, Female Fight Squad, Bloodline), about her changing her name to escape being associated with her father. Of course, a conversation like that is as good as sending him an invitation.
And sure enough, a letter gets slid under the door saying that Paul (Michael Madsen, Red Handed, Every Last One of Them) is coming for his little girl. Since, according to Sunny, the cops can’t stop him and will just make things worse, they simply pack up and head to a rural compound belonging to her friends Butch (Bradley Fisher, Teardrop, Tales from the Darkside) and Priscilla (Christine Sloane, Killer Party, Runnin’ from My Roots).
Writer Liz Fania Werner (Into the Uncanny Valley, The Assassination of a Mathematician) and co-director Carlos Montaner (Into the Uncanny Valley, The Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution) want this all to feel very ominous and foreboding. Unfortunately, it’s actually very obvious that things aren’t what they seem.
Sunny stonewalls her daughter every time she asks about her father’s activities in the past or about what’s going on now. She claims it’s for her own good, which is simply another red flag. And, I don’t know if it’s bad acting on Kimberly Alexander’s part or if it’s intentional, and she’s supposed to be playing an unconvincing liar, but I never believed a word her character said. So it’s no surprise at all when Paul and his goon Wendall (Christopher Showerman, Vitals, George of the Jungle 2) show up telling Karma that she’s close to divinity. And that she has to kill and eat a mouse because Hitler was a vegetarian.
That last one actually serves as a lead in to Waking Karma’s second act as Karma is put through a series of ordeals to try and break her will and remake her as the person her father needs her to be. All so she’ll accept what he claims is her destiny. If you’ve seen more than a couple of cult-based films you can probably guess what that is.
Werner and Montaner obviously have a lot to say about religious repression, be it from cults or mainstream churches, especially the repression of women and sexuality. They’ve said as much in the film’s press releases.
“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.”Liz Fania Werner
That’s all well and good if you’re making a drama. But Waking Karma is meant to be a horror movie, and the filmmakers put so much emphasis on the drama and message of the film that it never manages to deliver any scares.
To be fair in its last half hour Waking Karma does deliver a couple of disturbing moments including a virginity test that will have most viewers squirming. But that’s a bit too little and a lot too late. The film ends up feeling like a fucked up drama that flirts with horror here and there. Like one of those true crime serial killer stories, one you might see on Netflix, or more likely Lifetime.
If it had been promoted as something other than a horror film, I might have been more receptive to Waking Karma. But the lack of scares and the film’s predictability, right down to the closing scenes, left me unimpressed. XYZ Films will release Waking Karma to VOD and Digital platforms on January 26th. If you’re looking for something similar, but hopefully better, FilmTagger can suggest some titles.