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"Waking Karma" is the kind of small movie you root for even when it fails to live up to its potential. There's a lot that doesn't quite work, but you can tell by the strong performances and the production's overall sincerity that everyone involved was hoping to create something memorable; the missteps are mainly about what the film decides to emphasize.
Co-directed by Carlos Montaner and Liz Fania Werner (who also wrote the script), "Waking Karma" focuses on its title character, Karma (Hannah Christine Shetler), the daughter of a cult leader named Paul (Michael Madsen) who murdered 11 people. Karma's mother Sunny (Kimberly Alexander) escaped from Paul's compound years ago and has succeeded in creating a life apart from it, even though the trauma of that experience continues to affect her and her only child. They have to exist off-the-grid because they're afraid the cult will find them and drag them back to hell.
The setup has some superficial similarities to much better "fugitive family" thrillers like the classic "Running on Empty," in which the burden of living a secret life worsens adolescence, which is never a carefree period even for young people in a stable home. Karma and Sunny have thoughtful, sensitive exchanges in the first section, but then Paul shows up looking and acting like a dollar-store version of Robert Mitchum's preacher character in "Night of the Hunter," and Madsen starts doing his smirking, raspy voiced, Satanic lizard-man thing (which, while too familiar, is always effective, and is chill-inducing here). "Waking Karma" turns into an inevitable countdown to a confrontation in which mother or daughter (or both, or neither) will face off against Paul, and spark catharsis or tragedy.
"Waking Karma" makes the most of its minimal budget by playing with viewer's perceptions of what's real, especially in the opening sequence, a flashback that shows how "normal" a homicidal cult can seem when you've been living in the middle of it, and in hallucinatory/nightmare scenes involving an insect mask worn by the cult's Chosen One. The entire cast is impressively committed and understated (except for Madsen, who—like Dennis Hopper back in the day—is mainly called upon to rattle cages and put on a show). Shetler in particular is quite a find. She has an impressive range covering everything she's asked to do here, from horror film histrionics to domestic drama-style confrontations with a hard truth to action heroine resourcefulness.
The biggest problem here is the filmmaking, which is rarely more than serviceable and sometimes less than that. Oddly, for a movie with such built-in potential for nightmarish beauty and unsettling atmosphere, the lighting and compositions are almost entirely unmemorable save for a few nightmare bits. And the editing is haphazard, to the point where you start to wonder if some of the actors performing in scenes built of alternating close-ups were ever in the same room at the same time. "Waking Karma" feels like a project that had to be rescued, though from what, an outsider can't say.
Now playing on VOD.
Michael Madsen as Paul
Hannah Christine Shetler as Karma
Kimberly Alexander as Sunny
Bradley Fisher as Butch
Christine Sloane as Priscilla
Christopher Showerman as Wendell