High school is hard for everyone, but it has been especially hard for 17-year-old Karma (Hannah Christine Shetler) in new horror-thriller Waking Karma. After all, she shares a surname with her estranged father, the infamous and murderous cult leader Paul de Grendel (Michael Madsen), and her mother, Sunny (Kimberly Alexander), refuses to let her change it.
That refusal is the first indication that Karma’s mother may not have put as much distance between herself and her former cult as she’s letting on. And when she takes Karma to an isolated compound retreat to hide from her daddy, it quickly becomes clear that Paul is about to make an appearance in his daughter’s life.
Carlos Montaner and Liza Fania Werner directed Waking Karma from a script by Werner, and while there’s a good idea at the heart of the film, the execution lacks oomph. The psychological control that cult leaders exert over their followers could provide fascinating grist for a horror film, as could the emotional scars that run-ins with cults leave behind, but these ideas feel underexplored and bogged down by stodgy pacing.
This is especially evident in the second act when Paul puts Karma through a series of tests designed to toughen her up and make her more like him. The script lands on one particularly grisly idea, but it isn’t enough to prevent this portion of the film from dragging.
Thankfully, things pick up significantly as we approach the climax. Karma and Sunny’s relationship is given a little more depth and nuance, and the “virginity test” that Karma is subjected to makes for a genuinely uncomfortable scene. This culminates in an understated yet fitting climax, though it would have been nice to see Karma go through a more radical transformation to give Shetler more to do.
Dressed all in black, the gravel-voiced Michael Madsen is believable as a cult leader, but with so few details about the cult for us to go on, his character never manages to live up to the level of unimaginable evil and cruelty that the script wants us to believe he possesses. Madsen injects personality and presence into the role, but Paul ultimately comes across as a washed-up has-been with a following of two—not exactly the most intimidating figure.
You can see the potential in Waking Karma, but its unwillingness to scratch beneath the surface level lets it down. With an amped-up script and more creepy, creative imagery like the mask the cult uses during its ceremonies, this one could have cut deep. As it is, however, it doesn’t leave much of a mark.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)