A cult that brainwashes people to murder each other in exchange for a promised eternal life. A young girl who’s destined to become a sacrifice in a profane ritual. A violent man who breaks the spirit of his victims until there’s nothing but a shell left behind. At first glance, there’s a lot to love about Waking Karma, the first feature from writer and co-director Liz Fania Werner. However, despite an intriguing concept, the movie often feels like Werner and co-director Carlos Montaner lacked the time to bring the story to life in a satisfying way.

Waking Karma follows Hannah Christine Shetler as the titular Karma, a girl who had to grow up knowing her biological father is a cult leader condemned for the murder of at least eleven people. Karma’s mother, Sunny (Kimberly Alexander), escaped the clutches of the evil man when she was a pregnant teenager and has been hiding from the tentacular reaches of the cult ever since. At first, Waking Karma presents itself as a gripping thriller, concerned with exploring the psychological damage that cults can inflict on people, directly or indirectly. However, once cult leader Paul (Michael Madsen) comes back into the picture, Waking Karma quickly becomes a fight for survival.

Image Via XYZ Films

There are some solid foundations in Werner’s script, but unfortunately, not everything gets properly translated to the screen. For starters, it seems like something went wrong in the editing room, as some scenes seem to overstay their welcome while others are cut short too soon. That’s mainly evident in heavy dialogue scenes, where the camera cuts too often between actors as if Waking Karma had to stitch fragments of the same scene together. This could be caused by a short production time and a small budget, which puts on the editor’s shoulders the responsibility of turning scattered shots into a cohesive conversation. Still, dialogue is so often interrupted by sudden cuts that we can’t help but notice how better direction and editing could have done wonders for Waking Karma.

Then, there’s the issue of the dialogue itself. Werner’s script wants to center on the mother-daughter relationship, but the two leading actresses never get enough material to work with. We only get glimpses of the two women’s lives before all hell breaks loose, and Sunny never talks about her cult experience. As a result, almost every exchange they have feels superficial, with different conversations feeling too similar to justify their presence in the same movie. There are some moments where we can glimpse the brilliance of Werner’s story, such as when Sunny and Karma are forced to discuss the weight of motherhood. Unfortunately, these moments are often buried in clunky transitions and shallow lines.

Surprisingly, Waking Karma also doesn’t delve deep enough into the cult that’s at the center of the discussion. We do get a bone-chilling opening scene where the brutality of sacrificing rituals is contrasted by merry chants sung in unison by an apparently happy community. Even so, once Paul is back in the picture, we only get some vague allusions to what the cult believes in and what their rituals are. Even the imagery the cult uses, like the terrifying scorpion fly mask the chosen ones wear, feels random when Waking Karma doesn’t spend a minute of its runtime actually telling us what the cult stands for. And while Madsen does what he can to be scary, mainly by retracing the steps he took with Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Blonde, the stakes of a psychological thriller can only be real if we understand the antagonist’s motivations. So, it’s sad that Paul never gets developed beyond the fact he manipulates people and doesn’t have a moral compass to control his brutality.

The Fly Mask in Waking Karma
Image Via XYZ Films

While Waking Karma often restrains itself in the confines of reality, the movie flirts with supernatural horror by giving its protagonist nightmares and visions that start to haunt her once she turns 17. This is another wasted element that seems to be shoehorned up to the movie only to justify some weird first-person sequences where we see through the green lenses of the iconic fly helmet. However, since this build-up never leads to any payoff, this is one more example of how Waking Karma’s production might have been too rushed for its own good.

That doesn’t mean Waking Karma is bad, more like disappointing. Just as in Werner and Montaner’s previous partnership, for the short Into the Uncanny Valley, it feels like there was not enough time to let a fascinating concept mature and blossom into an exciting movie. There are many good ideas being thrown around in Waking Karma, and this reviewer is actually curious about what Werner and Montaner might come up with next. Whatever new project they decide to tackle together, though, we hope it can stay a little longer in the oven. What hurts Waking Karma more than anything else is the lack of polishing both the screenplay and direction got. And with a little more production time, the movie could have become something more memorable.

Rating: C-

Waking Karma comes to on-demand on January 26.

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