Waking Karma opens with two text quotes that set out its stall. The first is from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a tragedy of incest and parenticide, and of fate that cannot be avoided no matter how hard it is resisted. The second cites the instructions given by Charles Manson to his cultish hippie ‘family’ as they set out on a mission of home invasion and multiple murder. So we have an idea that this feature, directed by Carlos Montaner and Liz Fania Werner from a screenplay by Werner, is going to be a family film of sorts, with deep dysfunction on the table, and destiny driving the dramatis personae towards a bloody conclusion. This is quickly confirmed in the first sequence, as a teenaged girl (Marissa Zumbo) is first bathed, and then, wearing a grotesque gas mask adapted to look like an insect’s head, stabs an apparently willing man in the chest before a crowd of cultists, in an act of ritual sacrifice.
17 years later (as a caption states), we are introduced to protagonist Karma (Hannah Christine Shetler, in a real breakout performance) on her 17th birthday, and to her young single mum Sunny (Kimberly Alexander) who had Karma when she was herself 17. Karma’s very name is an indication that her parents are – or at least were – hippies, and also points to the film’s central theme of generational legacy, cosmic destiny and metempsychotic cycles. Karma longs to sever her last connection to her absent father – her surname de Grendel – and to change her name legally to the blander Jones. After all, Paul de Grendel (Michael Madsen) is a cult leader and serial killer who has been on the run for years, and while Sunny managed to get away from Paul’s malign orbit before Karma was born and has not seen him since, nonetheless mother and daughter still live under his malign shadow. Sunny is a friendless womanchild, yet more friend than mum to Karma, and Karma herself is alienated from others by her shameful family history and is considering sacrificing an offer from Harvard, and all the future promise that it represents, to stay and look after her beloved mother.
When a stampless letter from Paul arrives at their home stating menacingly that he is coming for Karma, mother and daughter flee to the off-grid home of another couple who managed to get out of the cult, Butch (Bradley Fisher) and his mute wife Priscilla (Christine Sloane). Yet Paul will inevitable turn up with sinister designs on Karma – and with the armed acolyte Wendell (Christopher Showerman) to enforce them. This reunion, held at gun and knife point, will introduce the increasingly bewildered young woman, on the cusp of adulthood, to some dark family secrets and harrowing home truths.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with your father, and at this point, struggling can only make things worse,” Butch advises Karma. “He wants to break your spirit. It’s not personal. It’s not about violence. This is just what he does. He wants to crawl inside your head and make you just as cruel as he is.” Paul is almost a parody of errant patriarchy – callous, gaslighting, bullying, and instrumentalising everyone, including close kin, to advance his own selfish ends. After putting Karma through a series of horrifying ordeals to test – in extremis – her suitability to be his natural heir, Paul finally sits Karma down to reveal what it is that he wants from her. In this sequence, she is forcibly seated on an armchair which bears a significant resemblance to the one in which Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington was trapped in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) – for here too, there are unhinged, exploitative plans afoot to use Karma’s healthy young body as a vessel against her will, and to crawl, as Butch put it, inside her head.
Much as Paul’s cult has adopted the scorpionfly as its symbol, and uses an insectiform mask to dress the female participants in its rituals, Karma too spends much of the film in a T-shirt with the distinctive yellow-and-black striped pattern of a bee. Yet where to the cultists the insect represents the circular stages of a very literal reincarnation, to Karma it is more a metaphor for the personal transformation involved in her coming of age. For this teen virgin – a woman in the making – is repeatedly shown awakening, in a series of emergences enshrined in her film’s very title, and must negotiate how similar to and different from her parents she wishes to become, as her adolescence gives way to adulthood, and as she makes her own choices and takes up her own altered place in the world.
In the end, Karma may, like Oedipus, defeat daddy, but in doing so she also becomes more akin to him than ever, maintaining his mean spirit in her own body. For it turns out that, despite her good nature and woke values, Karma’s a bitch, as well as a queen (bee) and a stone-cold killer – and so the film finishes on a paradoxical note. For the further behind her our heroine seems to put her family, the more she just continues to carry on its traditions, still very much her mother’s and father’s daughter, in the realisation of a destiny that perhaps she cannot escape after all.
strap: Carlos Montaner and Liz Fania Werner’s Oedipal ‘cult’ movie confronts an adolescent girl with her family’s horrific legacy
© Anton Bitel