Waking Karma, Carlos Montaner & Liz Fania Werner’s first feature-length film starring Michael Madsen, Hannah Christine Shetler, and Kimberly Alexander saw a release on multiple VOD platforms Friday, January 27th.
The film centers around Karma and her mother Sunny adjusting to a life without the presence of abusive husband, father, and tyrannical cult leader Paul. Karma celebrates her 17th birthday and all seems to be on the mend in spite of episodes of PTSD, further challenging her convictions that the horrors are in fact behind her. So when Sunny receives a note from Paul stating that he’s coming for them, they seek shelter with old friends who escaped the cult years ago.
The film moves at a brisk pace but takes some extra time in its depictions of trauma early on, suggesting a respectful lens on the matter. But by showing the amount of consideration the film applies to past mental and emotional damage to then enact more of that same psychological abuse onto Karma presents a worrisome dichotomy. It feels cheap and cruel, especially since she is presented to us as this person who was at first lucky to get out of her situation with some semblance of family still at her side. But what transpires by the turn of the second act feels little more than moustache-twirling for the sake of it.
Sure enough, Paul catches up to Karma and Sunny in almost no time at all and wastes none either in emotionally tormenting the daughter he’s never met until now. Up to this point, we’ve spent at least enough time with Karma to learn that she has felt apart from others, even her mother. When Paul threatens to kill Sunny, Karma attempts to rescue her and escape the grasp of her father. The feeling of menace Madsen brings is a genuinely constructive one, although it feels like a smaller slice than is deserved.
It’s not surprising that Madsen commands every scene he’s in, but when he’s there it feels like his character is meant to be building up to something and we never get there. Despite his influence being touted as an ultimate evil, he actually doesn’t inflict the majority of abuse onto Karma. To divulge further would reveal more than is necessary to enjoy the film even in the face of its shortcomings. But what Paul has planned for Karma is a bizarre and ill-defined ritual of his own, and the series of increasingly abusive treatments she undergoes have been tailored to condition Karma for the intended vessel of reincarnation.
The treatment of these sequences where Karma is put through the wringer suggest an odd giddiness at showing us something in a horror film where one might feel like it’s something they shouldn’t be watching. But there’s a little too much enthusiasm in this act of showing, especially when the film is meant to interrogate the exploitative element of imposing regressive views towards gender roles under the guise of duty and tradition. Because that is its aim, the images it creates to make the argument it does feel exploitative and not exactly in the spirit of the genre’s methods of exploitation. This kills the film’s momentum in building Karma up as a survivor of multiple manifestations of hatred and objectification, something ex-cult members struggle with for the rest of their lives as they navigate deprogramming and various forms of therapy. Simply put, viewing this through the horror lens from the start is the film’s biggest misstep.
The overall effect of the film overrides the components of it all, so the flat manner in which shots are framed and the uneven performances within don’t necessarily contribute to the unintended feeling of dismay this extracts. Still, there are ingredients within Waking Karma that point to a more effective use of the pieces evident here in a future project from directors Werner & Montaner. It’s just a matter of alignment and care and they’ve proven here that the latter is achievable, so how they frame their next story remains to be seen. It is my hope that their treatment is a better match for the content of their subsequent film.
Waking Karma is now available on all major VOD platforms as of Friday, January 27th from XYZ Films.