I wrote, a while back, about my favourite villain – Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth as portrayed by Dennis Hopper. His unhinged, unpredictable energy and capacity for violence and cruelty make him an indelible character in my heart and mind. Michael Madsen in the debut film from Liz Fania Werner and Carlos Montaner, Waking Karma doesn’t reach those heights or depths (and, to be fair, that’s an impossibly high – or low – bar to reach), but he’s very much a villain in the same vein.
Waking Karma is a movie that, on paper at least, explores unspeakable cruelty and the agency of women in the face of a patriarchal cult. It perhaps lacks a certain artfulness and gravity, but it goes so low, so hard on its main eponymous lead character, that it has a haunting effect.
Waking Karma follows a young mother, Sunny (Kimberly Alexander) who is raising her daughter Karma (Hannah Christine Shelter) after having escaped a murderous cult, led by Karma’s father Paul (Michael Madsen). Shortly after Karma’s 17th birthday, an ominous note arrives which states that Paul has tracked them down and is coming for Karma. Panicked, Sunny packs Karma and herself up and escapes to an off-the-grid compound run by former cult members Butch (Bradley Fisher) and Priscilla (Christine Sloane).
Before long, Paul and his main henchman Wendell (Christopher Showerman) manage to make their way to the locked-down compound, breaking in and taking everyone hostage so that Paul can perform a complicated and vague ritual which will imbue Karma’s body with his soul. But allegiances are shifting, and it becomes clear that at least one of the people sworn to protect Karma isn’t actually on her side.
Madsen’s performance as the charismatic Paul is the high point of Waking Karma for me, as he’s always been one of my favourite actors. He’s cold, merciless, and chillingly casual as he puts pressure on his captives. Shelter does a good job with Karma, injecting her performance with a suitable amount of horror at the repugnant acts forced on her by Paul and Wendell. Unfortunately, Alexander’s portrayal as Sunny undercuts things a bit, making what should be a serious outing and a meaty role as Karma’s guardian into something altogether too trite.
Waking Karma tends to lean heavier into the dramatic aspects of cult worship and from the very topical idea of women’s agency over their bodies and minds than outright ostentatious horror beats. Still, there’s some squirm-worthy moments to be mined from the situation, especially in the film’s third act as Karma is put through various mettle-testing ordeals to ascertain her worthiness as a vessel for Paul’s soul. At times, it feels like a serious discussion of the latter is just on the tips of everyone’s tongues, but shoe-horned motifs like the eye-catching bug mask prevent the conversation from crossing that threshold, and feel a bit like they’ve been tacked-on rather than organic elements of the story.
In Waking Karma, besides a couple of great performances by Madsen and Shelter, and even Bradley Fisher’s desperate portrayal of Butch, what stands out most for me is that you can clearly see the intent of filmmakers Werner and Montaner. It may not always hit its mark, but there’s a clear authenticity to their vision that feels like a powerful message is bubbling just under the surface. When Waking Karma manages to stay out of its own way, it’s a truly haunting experience with several moments that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Waking Karma comes to VOD/Digital on January 26, 2023 from XYZ Films.